When I first learned about the plans for President Joe Biden’s speech on Thursday, I thought he’d struggle to deliver his message of an extreme and dangerous Republican Party threatening democracy, given he’d spent his first year bending over backward to prove that same party could still be a sane and reasonable governing partner. When I finally watched it, I realized only Joe Biden could deliver a partisan speech whose actual message was about rehabilitating the institution he was meant to be warning people about.
Biden’s major primetime address on Thursday was his latest attempt to grapple with the perils facing democracy at home and abroad, a familiar topic for the president that has previously brought underwhelming returns. Biden’s virtual “Summit for Democracy” last year fell flat, given US democracy’s own troubles and the contradictory, clearly geopolitically driven mess of an invite list. His Summit of the Americas held this year was an even bigger debacle, when similarly incoherent decisions around who was invited and who wasn’t prompted a boycott from some of the region’s major players. Would the third time be a charm for the president?
To be fair, a clarion call to protect democracy is not really what Biden was going for last night. This was a campaign speech through and through, as Biden tried his hand at adopting the wider Democratic Party’s electoral strategy this year, aimed at framing the GOP as an increasingly extreme and out-of-control menace to democratic norms — only with a Bidenesque twist.
While the Democrats have more and more come to stress the lack of daylight between Donald Trump, his movement, and the Republican Party as a whole, Biden focused his ire on Trump and the “MAGA Republicans” who he said are contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law, and want to reverse long-established rights to abortion, contraception, and marriage equality. In fact, Biden went out of his way to explicitly separate this MAGA movement from what he called “mainstream Republicans,” who, the implication was, were opposed to this agenda.
The incoherence of this message was best embodied by an early passage, where over the course of a few sentences, Biden careened from warning about the dangers of the MAGA movement, to stressing they didn’t represent the GOP, to then declaring the same GOP was entirely in the thrall of said dangerous movement:
Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.
This is firmly in line with the message that an army of often liberal commentators, influencers, and politicians have fed the public over the past six years. It’s also, whatever the political wisdom of this message, a total fantasy.
The reason Trump has taken over the GOP isn’t because he’s blackmailing every elected official with compromising photos; it’s because the man always was and continues to be wildly popular with the Republican base. Only one of the “mainstream Republicans” Biden brags about working with in the Senate to pass his infrastructure bill voted with Trump less than 70 percent of the time, nor did any of them ever deviate from lockstep GOP opposition to Biden’s own agenda, dooming it and the millions of working Americans it would have benefited.
How can Biden claim it’s only MAGA Republicans who trample on democracy and the rule of law when it was just two Republican administrations ago that the GOP stole an election, before pursuing a “war on terror” that was regularly accused, including by Democrats, of trampling on the US Constitution? By the way, according to OpenSecrets, Biden’s party had spent a whole $44 million in the recent primary contests to boost the very “election deniers” he said sought to “undermine democracy itself,” on the basis that they’ll be easier to beat in November — a risky strategy that already backfired once when they did it with Trump in 2016.
But most absurd is the idea that it’s Trump and some cabal of zealots behind him that explain why the GOP is attacking abortion and other privacy rights nationwide. Trump’s sudden adoption of an extreme anti-abortion position was what consolidated his support from the GOP base in 2016 in the first place, and his anti-abortion Supreme Court picks weren’t rogue choices but names fed to him from the Republican establishment, with nearly every single Republican senator voting lockstep to confirm them all (Maine senator Susan Collins’s vote against Amy Coney Barrett remains the only GOP no vote). The quest to overturn Roe v. Wade, as just a start, has been a decades-long Republican project.
As I’ve written about again and again and again and again over the past six years, apparently to no avail, Trump and his imitators aren’t a break from, but the logical culmination of, a variety of long-intensifying trends within the GOP. The idea there’s some meaningful line that separates mainstream Republicans from MAGA Republicans is like pretending a shower curtain makes your bathtub into a separate room.
But since Biden was making a political pitch, let’s put aside reality and think about whether this is even an effective campaign message. There’s a risk Biden’s unnecessarily nuanced message for November — not “Don’t vote Republican” but rather “Don’t vote for specific Republicans, who I’ll leave nameless” — is confusing and unclear.
Only a handful of names, like Matt Gaetz or Marjorie Taylor Greene, have established public profiles as MAGA Republicans, and any Republican candidate not in a safe red seat is almost certain to present themselves as moderate or even opposing Trump in some cases, as so many of his most loyal acolytes have easily done over the years. Listening to Biden’s speech, any voter could easily rationalize agreeing with the president’s warnings about MAGA Republicans while continuing to support their local GOP candidate over whoever the Democrat is.
None of this may even matter anyway, since broadcast networks declined to run Biden’s speech, opting instead to play the night’s regularly scheduled programming of a game show and reruns. But it’s all emblematic of the confused and incoherent nature of Democratic messaging.
Different Bloody Speech
The same day, a different US politician made another major address, only across the Atlantic Ocean. As UK railworkers with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) continued negotiations for better wages and working conditions for the third straight month, Senator Bernie Sanders flew into London to speak to the workers directly, at his own request. (The same day, RMT workers announced two more days of strikes.)
Though largely a statement of solidarity for striking workers, Sanders’s speech obliquely tackled the same global crisis of democracy Biden centered on Thursday and throughout his presidency. But rather than framing the threat to democracy as a group of extremist ne’er-do-wells whom the president incidentally needs to beat in an upcoming election, Sanders pointed to the structural problems of ballooning wealth inequality and emerging oligarchy as the chief issues bedeviling liberal democracy.
“What you are looking at globally is a small number of billionaires who have enormous power over the economic life of the people and the political life of the people,” Sanders told the crowd.
The Vermont senator rattled through many of his usual points, albeit with a slightly more radical tinge, warning about billionaires who “every day are fighting hard to crush the working class so they can have a few billion more,” and about the “concentration of ownership” giving those at the top power over what’s produced and its cost. But Sanders, whose brother, Larry, has lived in the UK since 1969, stressed that the trends US audiences are used to hearing him highlight — the superrich getting richer, a vanishing middle class, rising poverty — are part of a global shift that must be combated.
“What is going on in the UK is no different from what is going on in the United States of America,” he said. “Same bloody thing.”
Of course, Biden, too, had given his listeners a call to action, warning Americans they were “not powerless” or “bystanders” as democracy comes under attack. Besides voting against the MAGA Republicans and choosing a vaguely defined “different path” instead, the president instructed Americans to unite behind the “single purpose” of defending democracy. But how, specifically?
“Democracy endures only if we the people respect the guardrails of the republic,” Biden said, adding respecting election results and viewing politics “not as total war but mediation of differences” to the list of preconditions for democracy’s continuing survival. “Democracy begins and will be preserved in we the people’s habits of the heart,” he explained.
Sanders’s audience heard a different perspective, one where preserving democracy wasn’t a matter of every individual simply voting once and changing what was in their hearts, but about mass movements and popular struggle. He noted the upsurge in US union organizing efforts going on at the same time as the UK’s own rise in worker militancy, and stressed the need to marry it to something bigger.
“We are trying to grow the trade union movement, we’re trying to combine trade unionists with the progressive movement to create an economic and political force of real power,” he said.
Paraphrasing US abolitionist Frederick Douglass, he told the crowd there was “no success, no justice, without struggle,” sarcastically asking if oligarchs would raise workers’ wages simply because they decided RMT general secretary Mick Lynch “made a good case.”
“That ain’t the way it works,” he said. “The only way that justice comes about, the only way working people ever make success, is when we stand up, take them on, and we win. That’s what this struggle is about.”
It stood in marked contrast to Biden’s exhortation that Americans “have burning inside of each of us the flame of liberty,” which “lit our way through abolition, the Civil War, suffrage, the Great Depression, world wars, civil rights.” As Sanders’s allusion to Douglass should remind us, the various milestones Biden name-checked didn’t come about because of a metaphorical fire that, by virtue of inherently smoldering within the soul of every American, simply led these events to inevitably happen. They came about through the kinds of radical and usually international mass movements — often deeply polarizing and unpopular ones, to start with — that Sanders proposed in his London speech.
What the Struggle Is About
As far as preelection motivational speeches go, Biden’s was leagues ahead of his 2010 effort admonishing his own voters to “stop whining.” As far as a vision laying out what ails American democracy and how to fix it, it was incoherent and had little to do with reality — an unfair verdict, maybe, since it’s not clear the speech had ambitions to be anything more than a base-rousing, get-out-the-vote barn burner.
Of course, neither of these speeches by itself is likely to have much concrete impact in either the coming midterms or the ongoing British strike actions. But those budding progressive political standard-bearers and left-wing movement leaders genuinely alarmed by today’s threats to liberal democracy should pay close attention to Sanders’s warnings about oligarchy and his prescriptions for how to fight it.
Democracy is in peril, both in the United States and around the world. But it’s not simply a matter of some bad people doing some bad things; it’s the result of an accelerating drift toward oligarchy, born of decades of shortsighted free-market policies its champions misled us were part and parcel of democracy, and of which Trump and his movement are just one by-product. And no amount of verbal condemnation and biyearly votes is going to defeat that system; it will instead have to happen the way all political change has ever come about in the United States and elsewhere: huge numbers of people of all different backgrounds realizing their common interests, organizing, and joining hands to take on entrenched power, in this case across the globe.
As Sanders told London’s striking railworkers, that’s what this struggle is about.