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Joe Biden is full of surprises. After the Electoral College met Monday to finalize the results of the election, the President-Elect delivered a speech I never thought he’d deliver. He did not say you’re with us or against us, but that’s what he righteously implied. And by implication, Biden gave a warning. Treachery, sedition, treason—none of these will be tolerated. All of them, moreover, will come at a price for the Republican Party to pay, the least of which is being characterized as the republic’s mortal enemy.
I wasn’t alone in being surprised. So was Jonathan Bernstein, the politics writer for Bloomberg Opinion. I read the political scientist every morning because of his dispassionate, and therefore accurate, read on contemporary politics. But in today’s column, he’s wrong. Should Biden call out Donald Trump’s lawlessness? he asked:
His decision to address it on Monday night after the Electoral College reaffirmed his victory was probably a mistake. Even giving such a speech was a concession of sorts to Trump’s illegitimate challenges. … It may seem weird to say that the president-elect talking about the virtues of democracy could actually harm that cause, but that’s where we are. Scolding Trump, as Biden did on Monday, no doubt appeals to Democrats, and does have the virtue of accurately describing what’s happening. But the last thing Biden wants, and the last thing the nation needs, is a partisan divide over whether democracy is a good thing or not (italics mine).
Bernstein knows we already have a partisan divide over whether democracy is a good thing or not. That’s what this era of Donald Trump has been all about. He’s right to be concerned. We all should be. Conditions are becoming ideal for widespread political violence and, though unlikely, civil war. But he’s wrong in saying that ignoring the GOP’s attempted coup d’etat is better than facing it head on. He’s wrong in suggesting that Biden should avoid engaging in the debate over democracy. It was failure to engage morally with a revived native-born fascism that gave rise to the last four years of hell.
There is risk to drawing a line and demanding that people pick a side. That risk should be obvious. Lots and lots of people will chose right-wing collectivism over republican democracy every single time. Indeed, many have already chosen collectivism though it has killed more Americans than those who died fighting in World War II. But that has always been the case. Native-born fascism will be with us long after Trump is out of the White House. All we can do is manage it. We manage it by engaging morally in debate over whether democracy is a good thing. But even this is missing something.
Democracy, after all, is secondary to equality. That’s what Abraham Lincoln thought. According to Yale philosopher Steven B. Smith, whose book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes comes out next year, the 16th president regarded the Union not as a “resting upon the direct expression of the popular will—a kind of American version of Rousseau’s ‘general will’—but upon a belief in the principle of equal human rights.
A slave-holding republic—one that did not respect the rights and dignity of each individual—was a contradiction in terms. Lincoln expressed his view almost as a political catechism. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy” (my italics).
With inequality, you have a social order, but you don’t have a nation. Without a nation, without an idea binding a diverse people together as one, all that’s left are competing factions in an endless struggle for control. This is where we are amid the social and, therefore, economic inequality dominating our lives. This is why Lincoln believed equal human rights were foundational to an enduring democracy. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” he said. “This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
And this is why Biden’s speech was just shy of jaw-dropping. He characterized those standing against “the general will” as standing so far outside the mainstream “we’ve never seen it before—a position that refused to respect the will of the people, refused to respect the rule of law, and refused to honor our Constitution.” The next step is characterizing the forces of social inequality—especially white supremacy—as being outside the boundaries of our republican democracy. It’s defending anti-racism, which isn’t political correctness. It isn’t “cancel culture.” It’s good old-fashioned patriotism.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people, where this article was originally published. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University.