Talking about the challenges faced by the United States and its allies in a world always ambivalent about democracy, President Joe Biden said a few words the other day that bear directly on his own confrontation with authoritarian forces at home. What he aimed to explain is more important than any specific aspect of his infrastructure proposal or the debate over how to pay for that big project's cost.
"It is absolutely clear," said the American president, that this era "is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies," by which he meant China and Russia but not only those major rivals. "That's what's at stake here. We've got to prove that democracy works."
Proving democracy works is no longer an abstraction for a civics classroom. At the moment, that phrase has a very specific meaning: Can we maintain, improve and modernize the nation left to us by the greatest generation, now that we are painfully aware of its disrepair? Can we provide a decent livelihood to our people -- all of our people -- and preserve an environment that sustains and nourishes them? And can we do all that in a political system that is free, competitive, transparent and honest?
The Chinese and Russian autocrats, and their smaller imitators, openly mock those democratic aspirations. China's leader, Xi Jinping, argues that only a party-led dictatorship can achieve high living standards and development. The dictators are eager to test their power against our principles. And thanks to the partisan myopia of the Republican Party, infected with a yearning for its own would-be dictator, we are in danger of failing that challenge.
To anyone who has observed American politics over the past three or four decades, Biden's warning is indisputably apt. Our political system suffers from a gravely diminished capacity to achieve important public purposes -- let alone the massive national investment required to rebuild our physical infrastructure. When every major decision becomes an occasion to achieve partisan victory, rather than national progress, a closely divided America will remain paralyzed.
The chief vector of this paralytic illness has long been Mitch McConnell, the highest-ranking Republican. Ten years ago, he could imagine no purpose more compelling than to end Barack Obama's presidency after a single term. While Democrats aimed to modernize the health care system and provide universal coverage, Republicans conceived their role as wholly negative and behaved accordingly.
They acted like termites -- and that is exactly what they are threatening to do with Biden's infrastructure plan now.
Well aware of what polls show about infrastructure -- and health care, for that matter -- Republicans offer lip service to popular preferences. Many Republican elected officials will endorse public works, improved transportation, safer water systems, even carbon reduction. They may even pretend to "negotiate" with Biden, but they won't vote for a program that he proposes or that Democrats can support.
What makes their reflexive opposition so dispiriting is that the Republicans know very well how desperately the nation needs the physical and economic revival offered by the Biden program. Whatever they mean by "America First," their political opportunism always puts America last.
The contradiction between Republican rhetoric and the party's termite behavior is drawn even more starkly when framed in a global context. While Beijing surely poses economic, diplomatic, ideological and perhaps even military challenges to America and its allies, the Republican response is almost hysterical -- as if the Chicom (Chinese communist) hordes were about to literally invade our shores. Their answer to the coronavirus pandemic wasn't action to save American lives but a racially tinged blame campaign.
Yet if the Republicans were to believe their own warnings about China, they would look for ways to support Joe Biden's infrastructure plan rather than try to block him. For the past four years, their own president laughably and limply failed to address this enormous problem. The opportunity to now rise above petty partisan concerns, defend democratic values and build the future is historic -- and history will be unkind to every politician who fails again.
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