Photo credit: NumenaStudios / Shutterstock.com
On Memorial Day, President Joe Biden spoke at Arlington National Cemetery to remember those who gave the “last full measure of devotion” to the United States, dying in our service. His speech was a full-throated defense of the cause for which those soldiers gave their lives: democracy.
“Democracy is more than a form of government,” Biden said. “It’s a way of being; it’s a way of seeing the world. Democracy means the rule of the people—the rule of the people. Not the rule of monarchs, not the rule of the moneyed, not the rule of the mighty—literally, the rule of the people.”
Democracy, he continued, is in peril as authoritarians around the world try to destroy it. But while our democracy is imperfect, Americans “of all backgrounds, races, creeds, gender identities, sexual orientations, have long spilled their blood to defend our democracy… because they understand the truth that lives in every American heart: that liberation, opportunity, justice are far more likely to come to pass in a democracy than an autocracy.”
Biden called today’s Americans to repay their sacrifice by making America live up to the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence. “We owe them the work of our hands and our hearts, to make real the promise of a nation founded on the proposition that all of us—all of us—all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated that way throughout our lives.”
Biden’s impassioned defense of democracy is not a rhetorical device.
Just last week, the refusal of Republican leaders to back the creation of a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection illustrated that the party is now wedded to former president Trump and his ongoing determination to overturn the 2020 election. Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who headed the 9/11 Commission, told David Smith of The Guardian that the failure to create a 9/11-type commission for the events of January 6 was “a mistake and it’s a country’s loss and a democracy’s loss.” “[T]here was no real, public reason for turning it down,” he said. “I guess some people were scared of what they’d find out.”
Last weekend, a QAnon conference in Dallas, Texas, featured Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn and Trump’s former lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood as keynote speakers. Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas and Texas Republican Party chair Allen West were also featured. They continue to insist, against all evidence, that Trump won the 2020 election.
Powell suggested that Trump could “simply be reinstated” as president, although she said she could not be sure Trump would get credit for time lost when Biden was in the White House.
After he left office, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—Trump pardoned him—and has fallen more and more deeply into QAnon conspiracy theories. For months, QAnon supporters have been praising the February military coup in Myanmar that overturned a democratically elected government and calling for such a coup here. During Flynn’s speech, an audience member asked why what happened in Myanmar can’t happen here. The crowd cheered and Flynn replied: “No reason. I mean, it should happen here.” When the video clip of the exchange went viral, Flynn’s verified Parler account called the idea he had called for a coup “a boldface fabrication based on twisted reporting.”
The Big Lie rhetoric is behind the voter suppression bills in Republican-dominated states, where legislators insist they must combat the alleged “voter fraud” that they blame for Biden’s victory. In Texas, House Republicans rushed to pass a sweeping election reform bill in the middle of Sunday night that would make it harder to vote and easier for judges to overturn an election.
Texas had just one potential case of voter fraud in 2020, out of 11 million ballots cast.
Democrats thwarted the passage of the bill by leaving the chamber until there were too few people left to make up a quorum (the number of people required to be there in order to hold a vote.) In retaliation, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, vowed to veto funding for the legislature. “No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” he tweeted. He demanded the legislature take the “must-pass” measure up again in a special session.
The approximately 60 Texas Democratic lawmakers were forced to walk away from bills they had hoped to pass, but they felt they had to send a message. State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer said, “Breaking quorum is about the equivalent of crawling on our knees begging the president and the United States Congress to give us the For the People Act and give us the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”
The For the People Act would, among other things, make it easier to vote, stop partisan gerrymandering, and limit the use of money in elections. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is more limited: it would restore the parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, thereby returning protections to people of color voting in state with a history of racial discrimination.
In a letter to Senate Democrats last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) thanked them for a productive May session that included confirming Biden’s nominations; advancing the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) to invest in science, technology, and manufacturing; rolling back Trump-era rules that hurt the environment, consumers, and workers; and passing the Hate Crimes Act that will help protect Asian Americans from attacks.
Senate Democrats “are doing everything we can to move legislation in a bipartisan way when and where the opportunity exists,” he said. “But we will not wait for months and months to pass meaningful legislation that delivers real results for the American people.” Schumer committed to bringing to vote in the last week of the June work period the For the People Act, “legislation that is essential to defending our democracy, reducing the influence of dark money and powerful special interests, and stopping the wave of Republican voter suppression happening in the states across the country in service of President Trump’s Big Lie.”
At Arlington National Cemetery, President Biden warned us that we are fighting for “the soul of America itself.” “Folks, you all know it,” he said. “Democracy thrives when the infrastructure of democracy is strong; when people have the right to vote freely and fairly and conveniently; when a free and independent press pursues the truth, founded on facts, not propaganda; when the rule of law applies equally and fairly to every citizen, regardless of where they come from or what they look like.”
“[T]he right to vote, the right to rise in a world as far as your talent can take you, unlimited by unfair barriers of privilege and power—such are the principles of democracy.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.