Will Americans Heed Biden's Plea to Defend Democracy?
Decades from now, Joe Biden's errors may not be forgotten, whether they relate to Afghanistan, the border or inflation. But whatever Biden has gotten wrong, posterity will remember that he was right about one critical matter: the dangers to democracy that arose in our time.
His prime-time address Thursday was a milestone of a regrettable sort: an American president feeling compelled to warn of a mortal threat to our form of government -- not from foreign enemies but from Americans. Biden was elected partly because of public recognition that Donald Trump was at war with the foundational ideals of this country.
But that war continued beyond the election, till Jan. 6 and after. Trump came excruciatingly close to success. Yet the GOP remains loyal to him.
Biden highlighted what's at stake. "MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution," he said. "They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they're working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself."
Democracy differs from authoritarianism in that it rests on truth, compromise, pluralism and a respect for the rights of others. Biden will go down in history as the president who played a major role in preserving the institutions and ideals that Trump did his best to undermine.
But maybe I'm being too optimistic. It may be that a generation or two from now, Americans will no longer be living in a constitutional republic based on fundamental rights, the rule of law and the consent of the governed. In that case, the dominant narrative may be that Biden was naive, weak and foolishly wedded to outmoded principles. He may be on the wrong side of history.
Mikhail Gorbachev could empathize. The former Soviet leader once represented the immense possibilities of human progress. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the eclipse of communism, the demise of the Soviet empire and the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War.
He didn't initiate the surge of political freedom that swept the globe three decades ago. Autocratic governments had previously given way to democracy in Spain, Greece, South Korea and the Philippines, among others. But no transition was more consequential than the one in Moscow.
Today, it's hard to conceptualize how earthshaking it was. Americans of the Cold War era assumed that communism was as permanent as the moon.
In his 2009 book "The Rise and Fall of Communism," Oxford University historian Archie Brown noted: "There are those who, in hindsight, think that transformative change was bound to occur in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s. Yet it would be hard to find anyone who at the time predicted change remotely comparable to that which took place."