Last Thursday night President Joe Biden used an address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to deliver a break-the-glass speech about the perilous state of American democracy. Since his inaugural address, Biden has talked about democracy from time to time, but without the force and urgency he displayed last week.
Better late than never.
Biden pulled no punches. He called out by name former President Trump and MAGA Republicans for threatening this nation’s legal and political values and institutions.
The indictment he delivered included a detailed bill of particulars. “MAGA Republicans,” Biden said, “do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they’re working right now… to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
And Biden took pains to highlight the growing phenomenon of MAGA-inspired political violence. “They fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.”
He reminded his audience that “history tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.” And he warned that
violence is not “an acceptable political tool in this country. It’s not. It can never be an acceptable tool. So, I want to say this plain and simple: There is no place for political violence in America, period, none, ever…. It’s wrong. We each have to reject political violence with all the moral clarity and conviction this nation can muster now.”
In one sense, Biden’s warnings about the state of American democracy and the threat of violence should have a receptive audience.
For the last several years polls have registered the public’s concerns about the fate of democracy.
A national poll conducted in June 2018 by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center found that 55% of the respondents agreed that American democracy is weak, and 68% said it is getting weaker. A narrow majority (50%–43%) believed that the U.S. is in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country.”
In an NBC News poll taken last month, more Americans ranked threats to democracy as the most important issue facing the country than inflation or any other problem.
An August 31 Quinnipiac Poll reinforces the view that Americans are clearly concerned about democracy’s fate. It found that “Americans by 67 – 29 percent think the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse. This is a 9-point increase from Quinnipiac University’s January 12, 2022 poll when it was 58 – 37 percent.”
Democrats and Republicans showed remarkable levels of agreement on this question, but sharply disagreed about who is to blame.
The polls indicate that Democrats pin the blame for democracy’s problems on Trump and the MAGA Republicans. Republicans, on the other hand, think that democracy’s problems can be attributed to President Biden and socialist Democrats.
Such a sharp partisan divide explains why Biden’s message was heard differently by Democrats, mainstream Republicans, and devotees of Donald Trump. The former president’s cronies did not disappoint, quickly labeling his speech partisan and “divisive.”
Americans of all political stripes see a turn to violence as an increasing part of our political life.
Polling by the Economist and YouGov in August found that “Two in five Americans believe a civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next decade.” In addition, “66% say political violence has increased since the start of 2021. Three in five Americans (60%) anticipate an increase in political violence in the next few years and only 9% expect political violence to decline.”
But here again there are important differences between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to foresee a civil war in America.
In June 2021, National Public Radio reported on a survey that found more Republicans than Democrats agree that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”
Partisan differences are also apparent in the way Republicans and Democrats now think about the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
According to a June 2022 Reuters report, “55% of the Republicans polled said they believed the riot was led by violent left-wing protesters” even though “nearly all of the 840 people arrested following the attack have been Trump supporters” and “there was no evidence leftist extremists disguised themselves as Trump supporters during the attack.”
58% of Republicans also said they believed that “most of the protesters were peaceful and law-abiding.”
12% of Republican respondents to another survey said they would be willing to use violence if it meant returning Donald Trump to the presidency.
Biden rightly called attention to the willingness of MAGA Republicans, at all levels of our political system, to condone and call for violence.
To offer several examples, on August 19, after the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, a Republican candidate for the Florida state assembly took to Twitter to call for violence against federal law enforcement officers. “Under my plan,” Luis Miguel tweeted, “all Floridians will have permission to shoot FBI, IRS, ATF and all other [federal agents] ON SIGHT! Let freedom ring!”
August 26’s Washington Post reported that “Belligerent rhetoric has also become part of everyday campaigning among some Republicans.” It noted that another Florida Republican candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, “who narrowly lost her primary…, wrote on Telegram on Aug. 8 that it’s ‘time to take the gloves off. … If you’re a freedom loving American, you must remove the Words decorum and civility from your vocabulary. This is a WAR!’”
And on Thursday, the same day as Biden’s speech, Tim Michels, a Trump-backed Republican running for governor in Wisconsin, reacted to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about his financial support for antiabortion groups and other organizations by saying that people “should just, just be ready to get out on the streets with pitchforks and torches with how low the liberal media has become.”
While American history, including our recent history, has been marked by political violence, there is something new and worrisome about the contemporary moment. As Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observes, “What is occurring today does not resemble this recent past.”
She notes that “although incidents from the left are on the rise, political violence still comes overwhelmingly from the right. “
“People committing far-right violence,” Kleinfeld says, “are older and more established than typical terrorists and violent criminals. They often hold jobs, are married, and have children. Those who attend church or belong to community groups are more likely to hold violent, conspiratorial beliefs. These are not isolated ‘lone wolves’; they are part of a broad community that echoes their ideas.”
It is about this community that Biden rightly sounded the alarm.
His speech was a much-needed reminder that Americans should settle their differences through voting not violence. It was also an effort to make the repudiation of political violence an electoral issue. “It’s within our power,” as Biden put it, “it’s in our hands, yours and mine, to stop the assault on American democracy.”
There are many reasons to vote for Democrats in November, but none is more important than sending the message that America wants nothing to do with MAGA Republicans’ destructive and dangerous embrace of violence.