WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is convening global leaders Thursday to pledge strong new commitments to democracy, even as the U.S. itself is facing some of the gravest threats in years to its democratic traditions and institutions at home.
As the president launches the administration’s inaugural Summit for Democracy, determined to show the world democracy can still work, the nation that’s been long considered a shining example is seen by various measures as a backslider.
Local elected officials are resigning at an alarming rate amid confrontations with angry voices at school board meetings, elections offices and town halls. States are passing laws to limit access to the ballot, making it more difficult for Americans to vote. And the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol has left many in one U.S. political party clinging to Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, eroding trust in the accuracy of the vote.
America must do better, critics at home and abroad insist.
“Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that have pulled us apart?” Biden asked during a joint session of Congress at the start of his presidency, months after the Capitol insurrection.
“America’s adversaries — the autocrats of the world — are betting we can’t.”
It’s an unsettling moment for the world’s leading democracy as authoritarianism grows around the globe, raising questions about the United States’ ability to lead by example and intensifying pressure on the Biden administration to not only promote democracy abroad but do more to shore it up at home.
As allies gather for the two-day virtual summit, the White House is approaching the meeting “from a place of humility,” understanding that no democracy is perfect, not even the U.S., according to a senior official granted anonymity to discuss the thinking at the White House.
At the forum, intended for some 110 participating countries to announce new commitments for strengthening democracy, Biden plans to speak about the importance of voting rights at home, much as he did at an anniversary celebration of the capital’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the official said. At the time, the president called voting “that fundamental right” and decried efforts to curtail it as “the most un-American thing” imaginable.
The president has also said that passage of his ambitious domestic agenda — the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law, as well as the roughly $2 trillion “Build Back Better Act” of social and climate change initiatives moving through the Senate — will demonstrate how democracy can improve people’s lives.
“The United States has a thriving democracy, but it’s been hurting in recent years,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, whose annual report marked a 15th consecutive year of a global democratic slide.
“Right now, we’re going through a phase in America where it’s very difficult to get things done and to really prove that democracy can deliver,” he said.
One early test will come Thursday as the U.S. House moves to approve the Protecting Our Democracy Act, the third in a trio of bills alongside the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that Democrats in Congress have put forward.
A fourth bill being drafted would impose changes to the Electoral Count Act, the once-routine process of tallying and certifying the presidential election ballots that was severely tested on Jan. 6 as Trump urged followers to challenge the vote.
But the legislation churning through Congress seems destined to fail, facing opposition from Republicans who dismiss the bills as partisan overreach.
Some Republicans say the bills are unnecessary or need to be dramatically scaled back. Others are perpetuating Trump’s false claims of election fraud despite dozens of U.S. court cases that found no evidence of voting irregularities. Some Republicans are now downplaying the attack at the Capitol, even as hundreds of rioters are facing charges in courts nationwide.
The White House is gearing up for a year of action on what it sees as rebuilding democracy. The Republican blockade against the Democrats’ bills in Congress has revived private Senate negotiations over changing the chamber’s filibuster rules to muscle past a nearly impossible 60-vote threshold in the evenly split 50-50 chamber.
Some are pushing for action ahead the 2022 congressional elections amid fears of new restrictions on the right to vote and outside actors sowing misinformation.
“If President Biden really believes — as he should — that we’re in an existential battle to protect democracy, when will he put the political capital behind these bills that such a crisis warrants?” said Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan, anti-authoritarianism organization.
Globally, meanwhile, this week's summit gets underway as outside groups are raising alarms about a worldwide slide of democracy, fueled by populations that have grown increasingly frustrated by stubborn income inequality and the COVID-19 crisis with its restrictions and millions of lives lost.
Authoritarianism is on the rise in some some ostensibly democratic countries, alongside shifting attitudes about the best forms of government amid anti-democratic influences and commentary from China and Russia. A Pew report released this week said that while “people like democracy, their commitment to it is often not very strong.” Even wealthy countries, including the U.S., have some people who favor military rule, the report said.
Another group, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said in its annual report that the number of countries experiencing democratic backsliding “has never been as high” as the past decade, with the U.S. added to the list alongside India and Brazil.
The legislation being voted on Thursday in the House tries to claw back some of what its supporters consider executive overreach that has been building in the U.S. for years and intensified during Trump's term. It includes provisions to strengthen enforcement of congressional subpoenas, protect whistleblowers and provide for congressional oversight of presidential emergency declarations, among other provisions, many of them previously backed by Republicans.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has also been “brainstorming" reforms to the electoral count that was disrupted that day the mob stormed the building.
“The Jan. 6 attack, and the image that gave the United States about the dysfunctionality of our system at present, I think, is a real body blow to the cause of democracy around the world," Schiff said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Schiff said from his own recent talks with Biden, "the president is very much focused like a laser on the challenge to democracy around the world, but also at home.”
Staff writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.