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Joe Biden delivers speech on one year anniversary of January 6 attack

President Joe Biden gives remarks in Statuary Hall of the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. One year ago, supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for Joe Biden. (Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

In Praise of Joe Biden's Fighting Words

While the rhetoric was strong, make no mistake: what's before the Democrats is a political project. And the question remains: will the president—and the party—do what it takes to vigorously pursue this project?

Jeffrey C. Isaac

The January 6 speeches by both Biden and Harris were terrific. On January 5,  I published a piece at The Bulwark arguing that January 6 was a day not to preach about healing but to renew the fight to defend democracy. Yesterday morning’s speeches, especially the one by Biden, exceeded my wildest expectations.

Both speeches were resolutely focused on a simple message: what happened last year was an attack on the very principles of constitutional democracy, principles that generations of Americans have fought and died for, and that need to be defended now by all Americans who care about the Constitution or their own political freedom. Both explicitly articulated support for the voting rights legislation currently before Congress, and a commitment to seeing this legislation be passed.

"We are in a fight for constitutional democracy, and this democracy will only be preserved if we take it seriously, and do our parts to defend it."

Biden’s speech was, unsurprisingly, the stronger speech, for three reasons: (1) because it explicitly named and described the former president’s effort to overturn the results of a democratic election; (2) it carefully explained how insidious and absurd are Republican claims that the election was “stolen,” and was quite clear that Trump and his Republican supporters continue to threaten democracy; and (3) because it was delivered with impressive and very real passion, by a man who was visibly and appropriately offended by the ways the Trumpists were spoiling his presidency.

Both speeches deserve to be carefully parsed. But what concerns me here is the overall message: we are in a fight for constitutional democracy, and this democracy will only be preserved if we take it seriously, and do our parts to defend it. 

Both speeches made clear that this is a job for responsible elected officials and for ordinary citizens. Both speeches made clear that this is not a partisan contest, but were also very clear that the Democratic Party is on the side of constitutional democracy, and that with some exceptions, the Republican Party is, unfortunately, on the other side. Biden brilliantly explained that as a matter of principle, he may disagree with most Republicans on policy, but does not consider partisan opponents to be his enemies. He also made clear that he stood with all Republicans—clearly very few—who stood with him in support of constitutional democracy. And that he stood against the others.

Biden’s words were excellent fighting words, and the fight will require more than words

“The Biden administration seems to be incapable of dealing with the challenges America faces, and their efforts to politicize January 6 will fall flat.”

Thus spake the leading Senate Republican twit, Lindsey Graham, at 10:35 a.m., in a tweet responding to President Biden’s speech.

Graham’s words on Twitter comprise an appropriate and revealing Republican response. 

On the one hand, they express the cynicism of his party towards democratic principles—which they are intent on defying—and towards the very process of governing—which they are intent on obstructing.

On the other hand, they rather bluntly recognize a truth: the country is in the midst of a struggle over democracy, and Biden’s words are fighting words. Thursday's speeches by both the president and the vice president were appropriately non-partisan, principled, and “statesmanlike.” But they definitely called the threat by name and announced a commitment to fighting it—and to fighting them. 

The speeches were an effort to politicize. Graham is right to take notice. And a serious parsing of his words can only tell us that the closing of the sentence quoted above is less a prediction than a performative expression of hope. Graham—speaking for fellow Republicans like Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, and DonalyTrump himself—is saying that Biden’s effort to politicize “will fall flat” because, cynic that he is, he believes that if and his cronies keep saying it, over and over again, it might become true.

And it might become true.

Because they will do everything in their power to make it true.

Because their efforts might contribute to a general public cynicism about democracy that simply allows Biden’s words to fall flat.

And because Biden and Harris, and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, might allow the words to fall flat.

They can easily do this, by overestimating their own civic virtue. By taking false comfort from platitudes about how ‘the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.’ And by underestimating their enemy, and the fight that they face.

The challenge they face—the challenge that we face—is enormous. Because the opponents of democracy are determined, and willing to fight at pretty much all costs. And because the proverbial political “deck” is stacked in their favor, by the existing electoral system, which is fragmented and archaic; by the way that the Senate is structured; and by the fact that Trump and his allies have already succeeded in poisoning the political culture and creating a mass public that thrives on Big Lies, conspiracy theories, and hatred of the rule of law.

The passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act will require real political effort and political ingenuity. This is not guaranteed. A reform of the Electoral Count Act—which is essential in order to avoid another “January 6”—will perhaps require even greater ingenuity.

These legislative solutions will require a very public and relentless campaign by the Biden administration and the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. It will also probably require a very effective and politically savvy “roll out” of the House January 6 Commission’s findings, with well-orchestrated public hearings and social media public relations.

This will require that yesterday’s words are followed with many more, and more powerful, words.

It will require that some of these words are crafted to build wide public support and to mobilize citizens to make themselves heard, so that citizens act and so that public officials “feel the heat.”

And of course, it will require other words designed to press recalcitrant congressional Democrats to do the right thing.

Passage of federal legislation is one necessary outcome of these efforts.

But even if such legislation is passed, the challenge of defending democracy will remain.

The most important of aspect of this challenge is rather direct: the danger that the Republican Party will retake the House and perhaps even the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, and retake the presidency in 2024. These things are very possible. It is likely, given the way things work, that the Republicans will retake the House this year. And if they do, they can be guaranteed to use their power to hold hearings based on the Big Lie, up to and including possible impeachment hearings, and to do everything in their power to destroy the Biden presidency. This will make more likely the chance that Trump or a Trump-like alternative will be elected President in 2024. Then all bets are off.

The fight for constitutional democracy will thus involve major electoral campaigns in 2022 and 2024, at the national level and at the state level. This will require effective messaging but also the mobilization of party activists in every district in the country. It will also require support for organizations, like Fair Fight Action and the Movement Voter Project, that focus on voter registration, education, and mobilization.

And this is only the defensive fight for democracy, the fight to prevent Trumpism from gutting constitutional democracy through more or less “legal” means.

There is also the need to strengthen the so-called “guardrails” that have long been eroding, and to do more to deepen democracy, to nourish stronger forms of civic participation, and to make the changes necessary to generate a government that is not simply broadly “of” and “by” the people, but that works for the people, addressing the pressing problems of the day and enhancing the quality of peoples’ lives.

This is a very tall order.

It is a political project.

Will the Biden administration vigorously pursue this project?

Will it inspire sufficient public support to succeed, legislatively, and electorally?

These questions remain to be answered.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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