In an address before Thanksgiving last year, President-elect Biden stated, “Our democracy was tested this year.” He added, “What we learned is this: The people of this nation are up to the task. In America, we have full and fair and free elections. And then we honor the results.”
Biden was evoking the preamble to the American Constitution, specifically its purpose in creating a democratic system to ‘form a more perfect Union,’ ‘insure domestic Tranquility,’ and ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’
After the riot January 6 and the resistance many Republicans showed to the certification of his electoral victory, Biden will face not just political divisions, but also an opposition that considers him illegitimate and willing to ignore norms and the law and even engage in violence.
There will be numerous investigations into the far right and extremist groups in the US following the riots, but arguably the most important task for slowing the momentum of authoritarianism will be the Constitution’s additional dictate to promote ‘the general Welfare’.
Yet, if they attempt to legislate progressive policies, President Biden and the Democratic Party will confront accusations of co-optation by an un-American ‘radical left’, accusations that proved effective in the general election. For example, former Senator Purdue of Georgia told Fox News that he and the other Republican candidate, Kelly Loeffler, “are the last line of defense against this liberal socialist agenda the Democrats will perpetrate.” That they lost proves the argument is not invincible, but, correspondingly, the closeness of both elections demonstrates that the label ‘socialism’ can still persuade voters not to vote Democrat.
I have spent much of my career as an academic living in countries where authoritarianism has been imposed, not chosen. These regimes have historically retained power through controlling the legal system; utilizing security forces to monitor dissent; co-opting, isolating, exiling, or even imprisoning and assassinating opposition leaders and journalists; and undermining the independence of civil society. I have met a number of former political prisoners with lingering health issues, former journalists who have abandoned the profession or left the country, and representatives from civil society who have focused their attention on local impact, as any attempt to influence national politics outside of public protests is viewed as hopeless.
Authoritarian leaders also rely upon distributing resources to their allies and social groups that will then want them to stay in power. Similarly, would-be authoritarian leaders in democracies have sanctioned the issuing of government contracts to supporters in business and direct payments to citizens. President Trump’s insistence on signing the first stimulus-plan checks issued to American citizens showed he recognized the political importance of this act.
President Duda of Poland and Prime Minister Orban of Hungary have benefited from this strategy, even if ultimately Trump did not. It may be that the pandemic and subsequent downturn, the effects of climate change, and persistent gender and intergenerational inequality will eventually overwhelm even the most popular government. President Duda can increase pension payments and lower the retirement age, but he cannot sustain remittances during a global economic crisis or prevent the Polish economy from sinking into the first recession in thirty years. In a survey conducted by Kantar for the EU, Hungarians reported the greatest loss of income (44%) during the pandemic.
The lesson for Democrats is rather than fixate on how to contextualise messaging for the particular constituency, or balance far-reaching policy agendas that combat inequality and climate change with incremental, i.e. not frightening, legislation, they should concentrate on connecting better material circumstances to stronger democratic institutions, rather than would-be authoritarianism. Echoing calls to utilize health policy as a means to restore trust in democracy, Democrat Representative Elissa Slotkin, who won her seat in the House of Representatives in a Michigan district that has voted for Trump twice, wants the incoming administration to prioritise decreasing the cost of insulin. The measure would help a large population of Americans (1 in 10 have diabetes and 1 in 3 are pre-diabetic) and have an immediate impact on cost of living.
Yet, can single measures like this overcome more general Republican fearmongering and enhance the future electoral appeal of Democrats? A more far-reaching strategy to counter Republican objections, and challenge extremism, would be to embrace the complexity of current events and long-standing challenges. Highly partisan politics and conspiracy theories are alluring because they offer simple, time-efficient frameworks for comprehending current events and choices for the future. The Democrats, or any political party opposing would-be authoritarianism, should ask the public to acknowledge that the combination of the pandemic, economic recession, climate change, and political extremism will be very difficult to address.
Socialist and Marxist literature actually does offer a suggestion of how to connect recognition of the complexity with concrete policy recommendations. The goal of both political philosophies, as well as that of contemporary intellectuals like Michael Sandel and Amartya Sen and policy initiatives like Universal Basic Income, is to ensure that individuals have enough economic security to engage in other activities besides work or thinking about money. The only way citizens will have the time to become more reflective and educated is to alleviate pervasive financial stress and reduce the physical and mental health problems this stress can produce.
An oft-cited phenomenon concerning the Brexit referendum in the UK was the fact that ‘what is the EU’ was the second most Googled question after the vote. The answer is complicated, perhaps too much so for a simple yes/no referendum. Democrats could learn from this experience and indeed justify their approach within the language of the Constitution, as it equates ‘welfare’ with ‘liberty’.
Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.
She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.
She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher. Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.
Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.
Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.