“You cannot love your country only when you win.” These words, spoken by President Joe Biden during his address to the nation Thursday night, stood out for me. That phrase immediately took me back to President John F. Kennedy’s memorable statement during his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, when he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” The newly elected President challenged the nation to be more civic-minded, to care more about the country and all its citizens than selfish concerns. Biden’s remark may not make it into the pantheon of great oratory; however, it is an idea that is often overlooked. Love of country matters more than winning elections. Even a country that is significantly flawed.
It was a timely and well-crafted speech. We often hear about the White House being the “bully pulpit,” Thursday night the President decided to stand atop it and shout loud and clear that those who have joined Donald Trump in his America First and Make America Great Again (MAGA) campaigns are a clear and present threat to democracy in the United States. Expectedly, MAGA Republicans and their apologists immediately pushed back, accusing President Biden of pitting Americans against Americans when what was needed was a call for unity. What a crock! Biden pitted Americans of goodwill against the MAGA crowd by asking Republicans, Democrats, and independents to join in choosing a more noble path to the future.
While President Biden was on target to highlight MAGA Republicans’ quest to transform the nation into an authoritarian state by hijacking our elections, there are other forces at work that pose an equal or greater threat to American self-governance. Forces like economic inequality, dark money in elections, gerrymandering, the undermining of democratic institutions, anti-majoritarianism, the two-party doom loop, and misinformation to name a few. These forces have been ravaging the nation for years before Donald Trump arrived on the scene.
At the top of the list is the abundance of money in politics which gives exaggerated influence to the wealthy exacerbated by increasing economic equality. A CBS News poll released last week reported that 72 percent of respondents believed democracy and the rule of law are under threat. Of those who support this supposition, 86 percent believed the influence of money in politics was the primary culprit. However, what mars American democracy is baked into the constitution, laws, and procedures such as the Electoral College, and the imbalance of power in the United States Senate in which Wyoming’s fewer than 600,000 residents have the same representation as California’s 39.5 million.
The House Select Committee on the January 6, 2021 insurrection has artfully reconstructed the events leading up to that day revealing the brazenness of Donald Trump and the unwavering loyalty of his followers. As details of the calculated conspiracy were revealed, Americans began to realize how close the country came to a constitutional crisis despite Joe Biden receiving nearly 7 million more votes. As elected Republicans fell in line with the myth of a stolen election, talk of the demise of democracy filled books and the airwaves. President Biden’s speech Thursday gave it the attention it needed. It was a full-throated attack on the MAGA crowd.
The Social Work Democracy Project was born out of the growing awareness of threats to American democracy. One response will be the development of a national course on threats to democracy that will be available to social workers and social work students. American Promise, an organization whose singular goal is to enact a constitutional amendment limiting money in politics, will induct me into its Advisory Council later this month. I too was skeptical when invited to join but am now convinced enacting a constitutional amendment is in the realm of possibility. There are other efforts underway to reverse the Citizens United ruling.
There are glimmers of hope on the horizon. We are witnessing expanded use of ranked-choice voting. In Alaska’s special election to fill the remainder of the term of recently deceased Congressman Don Young, Democratic candidate Mary Peltola defeated former governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin using a ranked-choice voting method. She is the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress but will need to run again in November for a full term. And, fittingly on Labor Day, there appears to be a resurgence of unions, with the AFL-CIO organizing unions to protect voters’ rights at the polls. Democracy is not yet dead. We all must play a role in keeping it alive.