A key campaign promise of US President Joe Biden in 2020 was to “reinvigorate American democracy” and “repair the damage wrought by President Trump”. His proposals were ambitious, addressing voters’ rights, criminal justice reform, access to education, gender equality, immigration, and restoring “a commitment to science and truth in government”, particularly with respect to climate change.
His ‘Summit for Democracy’, announced in the first days of his presidency and that commenced this week, plays to that narrative, with goals to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action”.
In truth, the summit is Biden’s opportunity to establish strategic global positioning for his young presidency, and the US as a whole.
Biden’s emphasis on democratic renewal is explicitly a rejection of Trump's foreign policy foundation of “America First”. But Biden and his lieutenants have repeatedly stressed that the task to reassert America’s leadership “begins at home”. Biden’s democracy agenda inside the US gains legitimacy when couched in terms of promoting the country’s national interests on the world stage.
As Biden repeatedly said during his campaign, the US must lead not just with the example of power, “but the power of our example”.
The summit is an important piece of statecraft in itself, a vivid demonstration of the global leadership Biden aspires to. It is commonplace to observe that the dominant feature of the international system is great power rivalry, principally between the United States (and its allies), and China and Russia.
Many in the US strategic affairs community, and elsewhere, go further, seeing an epoch-defining contest between systems and philosophies of governance - between liberal democracy and various species of authoritarianism. This view is broadly shared across party lines in the US — one of the few points of consensus in Washington.
The rise of China challenges the US unlike any other great power rivalry since the demise of European empires. Cold War analogies are unhelpful; China in the 2020s is altogether different to the USSR circa 1950-1990. China’s combination of national wealth, integration in the global economy, its technological capabilities and ambition — under increasingly assertive, authoritarian one-party rule — poses a profound and multi-faceted challenge to the US-anchored liberal international order.
As Biden said in his 2021 State of the Union address, Chinese President Xi Jingping is “deadly earnest about [China] becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world”.
“He and others — autocrats — think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.”
Biden concluded by asserting that the “central challenge of the age” is “proving democracy is durable and strong”.
The summit will be a platform for Biden and other democratic leaders to reinforce this view, building the solidarity to persuade countries in geo-strategic orbit of China and Russia that engagement with the US — and the liberal, international order it helped build after World War Two — is a robust and viable path to prosperity and security.
Strategic aspirations and rationales aside, Biden must confront inconvenient truths about the state of democracy in the US. Any failure by the Biden administration at the summit will play into the hands of the summit’s critics, China and Russia chief among them.
A US with ailing democratic institutions and unable to extend constitutionally guaranteed rights to all its citizens lacks legitimacy on the world stage, undermining its leadership aspirations.
The American political system contains numerous anti-majoritarian bottlenecks and veto points for minorities, by design. The Electoral College used to elect presidents gives disproportionate voting power to citizens in less populous states. The 30 smallest states have a greater share of the Electoral College than their share of the national population. Republican candidates have won the presidency twice in the last 20 years despite not winning the most votes nationally (George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016). Meanwhile the US Senate is elected via a constitutionally-mandated system of malapportionment, guaranteeing all states two senators irrespective of population.
Short of amending the US constitution, little can be done about these anti-majoritarian facets of American politics. But this is hardly the extent of the ways that the promise of democracy fails to be realised in America.
Legislation in the US Senate is often blocked by the filibuster — a rule that has allowed 41 of the country’s conservative Senators to stymie many pieces of legislation, including laws to guarantee voting rights. This bloc of senators currently represents just 38.5% of the adult population of the fifty states.
Partisan gerrymandering — drawing maps of legislative districts with the goal of ‘packing’ or ‘cracking’ clusters of party supporters to gain an advantage at election time — also runs rampant.
Historically, both parties are guilty of partisan gerrymandering. But Republicans are currently enacting some of the most durable and extreme partisan gerrymanders of the modern era, entrenching their control of state legislatures and using those legislative majorities to enact partisan gerrymanders for Congressional elections. In North Carolina, under a map enacted by Republicans, Democrats won 50.5 percent of the 2018 vote for Congress but just three out of 13 districts.
In 2019, the US Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering is not within the purview of the federal court system, allowing the practice to reach new extremes in the lead-up to midterm elections in November 2022.
Reforming these issues has been made even more difficult by restrictions placed on access to voting.
Voter suppression continues to affect US elections in many ways: voter rolls are periodically purged, accessing a polling booth is hard for many, and convicted criminals mostly have their voting rights removed.
The first piece of legislation the Democrats introduced to the current US Congress targeted voter reform. Designated HR-1, the “For The People” Act proposes same-day voter registration, expanding access to early voting and postal voting, automatic voter registration, and making Election Day a national holiday.
HR-1 also proposes an end to partisan gerrymandering, requiring states to use independent commissions for redistricting, along with campaign finance reform.
Despite passing the House of Representatives in March 2021 (with no Republicans in favour), HR-1 has languished in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass — meaning it is doomed, given resistance by the Republicans.
These shortcomings of American democracy are not just pain points for Democrats in US domestic politics. They are seized on by adversaries of the US — and of democracy — as examples of the emptiness of American claims to democracy’s primacy in the international order.
For millions of Americans, national pride is expressly tied to viewing their country as the ‘leader of the free world’. The political force of this ideal should not be underestimated. If the US wishes to retain its identity as global leader, both sides of domestic politics need to come together to ensure the democracy of which they are so proud is strengthened into the 21st century.