Joe Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a speech while visiting the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in Missouri on December 8, 2021.

(Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics Warn Biden 'Summit for Democracy' Will Highlight Democrats' Failures at Home

"President Biden can't champion democracy across the globe without fulfilling his promise to protect our voting rights at home."

Leading up to U.S. President Joe Biden's so-called Summit for Democracy this week, critics suggested Wednesday that the two-day virtual event will show how the American leader and congressional Democrats have failed to address relevant issues at home while pointing fingers abroad.

"While the notion of advancing democracy around the world is noble, America's democracy is in a state of emergency and demands our attention and focus just as urgently."

"The Biden administration's commitment to human rights and advancing democracy globally is commendable leadership, but saving democracy starts at home and we must also address threats to democracy domestically," said Taifa Smith Butler, president of the think tank Demos, in a statement.

Smith Butler noted that "a new Texas law makes it harder for people with limited English proficiency and seniors with disabilities to get help at the polls. Florida law prohibits local and state officials from providing a mail-in ballot unless a voter specifically requests one. And in Georgia, counties, now, can decide not to allow early voting on Sundays--a conspicuous attack on Black churches' 'souls to the polls' tradition of voting after service."

"This kind of voter suppression, unfortunately, isn't isolated to these three states," she said. "Dozens of laws passed since the 2020 election are aimed at making it harder for millions of Americans to vote. From laws reducing polling place availability to laws that eliminate mail ballot drop boxes, voters in this country simply face too many barriers to making their voices heard. While the notion of advancing democracy around the world is noble, America's democracy is in a state of emergency and demands our attention and focus just as urgently."

Demos has three suggestions for Democrats to improve American democracy:

  • Put people over politics and kill the filibuster;
  • Pass the (wildly popular) Freedom to Vote Act; and
  • Pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Both the Freedom to Vote Act--compromise legislation that followed the bolder For the People Act--and the House-approved bill named for the late Georgia congressman were blocked by the Senate GOP as Republican state legislators and governors ramped up attacks on voting rights.

Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn also put out a statement in anticipation of the summit that calls on Biden "to use his bully pulpit" to ensure both bills get through Congress.

Biden "faces a crisis of democracy here at home," she said. "Bolstering international democracy is critically important, but we must also get our own house in order."

The Common Cause leader acknowledged key events of the past year--including former President Donald Trump's misinformation campaign that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, a myth that led a right-wing mob to storm the halls of Congress on January 6.

"Our crisis did not begin with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, nor did it end there," Hobert Flynn said. "Parroting Donald Trump's Big Lie and aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act under Chief Justice John Roberts, GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have ushered in a new Jim Crow era."

"Americans expect and deserve elected representatives who reflect the will of the people," she continued, "but the anti-voter laws and outrageous gerrymanders being passed around the country today are designed to silence the voices of millions of citizens often because of their race, their background, or their zip code."

While applauding Biden for "following through on his commitment" to hold this week's event, she pointed out that people around the world are noting with concern the current conditions--such as a recent analysis that dubbed the United States a "backsliding" democracy--and warned that if the two voting rights bills aren't soon enacted, "this may be the last Summit for Democracy that our nation hosts."

Politico reports that "on Thursday--at the appalling hour of 6 am, to accommodate a global audience--Biden will open the Summit for Democracy, reduced by the pandemic to a giant, two-day Zoom conference. Leaders of 110 countries will make public commitments to fortify their own, in some cases rather notional, democracies."

The White House said earlier this year that the invitation-only summit will focus on "defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights."

Bruce Jentleson, a public policy and political science professor at Duke University who served in former President Barack Obama's State Department, told Al Jazeera that he expects some nations to draw attention to U.S. domestic issues during the summit.

"Some countries will say, 'Wait a second, United States--who are you to make us accountable on democracy?" according to Jentleson. "Some of us have problems, but your problems are much worse than ours. Yours are challenging the fundamentals of your system, with restricting voting rights, political violence, death threats to not only prominent people but school board members and local elections officials."

"So where's your credibility?" he added of the anticipated pushback. "That's not just Chinese or Russian or Iranian propaganda; there's real legitimacy to that criticism."

In a Wednesday column for The Washington Post, Greg Sargent noted that "Biden's advisers are grappling with this problem. But judging by an illuminating new Politico report on Biden's preparations for the summit, they're not adequately wrestling with the precise dimensions of it."

As Sargent wrote:

If Biden tells the truth to the world, it might sound like this: Our homegrown threat to democracy comes primarily from a dangerously radicalized right wing and from the cynical, antidemocratic accommodation of it by only one of our major political parties, the GOP.
Biden would say his own party has proved utterly unable--or even unwilling--to take the actions necessary to safeguard against that threat. And he would admit the problems are also structural: That safeguarding is frustrated by anti-majoritarian features of the system itself, and his own party is failing to correct those as well.

Sargent pointed out that when asked what the United States could get out of the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Politico that "there is a call-to-action aspect of this that also is part of our summoning of our better angels, which the president strongly believes continues to resonate powerfully with most Americans. Things have gotten lost along the way. This is a moment to try to refocus our fellow citizens on what makes us exceptional. It does speak to something that continues to unite us, and that people aspire to, even despite the frustrations."

The Post columnist argued that "this treats the problem as a failure of persuasion, as opposed to a failure grounded in inaction.

"No amount of 'summoning of our better angels' or 'refocusing' on what's 'exceptional' about U.S. democracy will change what's happening," he wrote. "This seems to presume Republicans can be persuaded to reverse their current course, whether by Biden's soaring rhetoric or by public pressure that would materialize from it."

Progressives within and beyond Congress don't expect right-wing attacks on American democracy to subside, especially with the midterms approaching. Over 75 advocacy groups based in Republican-led states on Wednesday highlighted how GOP lawmakers have pushed through voter suppression measures and gerrymandered political maps this year, and urged U.S. Senate Democrats to do whatever it takes to fight back with federal legislation.

In addition to facing scrutiny for domestic policy failures, especially on voting rights, Biden has recently come under fire for inviting Venezuela's right-wing coup leader, Juan Guaido, to the summit, and he faces pressure to examine how U.S. foreign policy is at odds with the stated intentions of the event.

Ryan Costello of the National Iranian American Council wrote Wednesday for Responsible Statecraft that "to be a meaningful rather than a self-congratulatory exercise will require the Biden administration--and the foreign policy establishment writ large--to ask some hard questions. At the top of the list should be why the United States actively supports so many authoritarian governments while imposing crushing sanctions on many of the rest."

Writing just a day after the U.S. Senate voted down a resolution that would have blocked a widely condemned $650 million arms sale to bolster the Saudi-led war on Yemen, Costello made the case that "the United States should be able to engage both the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the theocracy in Iran--as well as other governments--to hold them accountable and seek to affect their behavior without undermining civil society or liberal values."

"Not only is the United States under serious risk of democratic backsliding due to threats from within, but it must carefully balance competition with coordination to address some of the biggest threats of our time, like climate change," he added. "However, even an honest conversation risks missing how U.S. foreign policy has sustained, rather than undermined, authoritarian governance across the globe."

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