Why Is Biden Attacking Democracy?

Supporting self-rule for Washington, D.C., only when it does what you want isn’t supporting self-rule at all.

A photograph of Joe Biden walking behind a curtain
Drew Angerer / Getty

Give President Joe Biden democracy, self-rule, and statehood for Washington, D.C. But not yet.

Yesterday, Biden announced that he would not veto Congress’s override of a new criminal code for D.C. passed by its city council. “I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule—but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections—such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden tweeted. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did—I’ll sign it.”

If you support self-rule for jurisdictions only so long as they do not make choices you oppose, you do not actually support self-rule. The bill is meant to streamline and update D.C.’s criminal code; the city council passed it unanimously, despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s opposition. Bowser said she agreed with “95 percent” of the bill, excepting some of its lower maximum penalties for certain crimes and its expansion of jury trials to include misdemeanors, arguing that the latter would overburden the system.

The changes to the city’s criminal code are, as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, much less dramatic than advertised. For example, the bill “lowers penalties for carjacking” in the sense that it changes the maximum sentence from a never-imposed 40 years to 24, which is still a very long time, and to which years can be added based on other potential offenses associated with the same crime. Some Senate Democrats are expected to vote to overturn the D.C. law, an indication of just how seriously they take their own rhetoric about democracy. One need not believe that the changes are a good idea to find this appalling. That’s how democracy works: Sometimes the people make the wrong choice. The virtue of the system is that they make it, and it is not made for them.

Unfortunately, this is just the latest episode in a long history of the federal government’s contempt for D.C.’s right to govern itself. In the 1870s, the city became a haven for the newly emancipated after the Civil War, and extended suffrage rights to all regardless of race. But as Reconstruction ended, the city became the fiefdom of outright white supremacists who plundered it for profit and exploited its Black residents. In 1890, the former Confederate general, plantation owner, and Democratic senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama took to the Senate floor to explain why D.C. could not be allowed to govern its own affairs.

Now, the historical fact is simply this, that the negroes came into this District from Virginia and Maryland and from other places; I know dozens of them here now who flocked in from Alabama … They came in here and they took possession of a certain part of the political power of this District. There was but one way to get out—so Congress thought, so this able committee thought—and that was to deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District and have every office here controlled by appointment instead of by election … in order to get rid of this load of negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them.

As the reporters Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe wrote in Dream City, their history of Washington, D.C., “It’s impossible to dismiss the fact that raw discrimination against blacks was for years at the root of Congress’s relationship with the District of Columbia.”

Although the Constitution grants Congress power over the seat of government, the long-standing hostility toward the very idea of home rule in D.C. stems from the belief that Black people are incapable of governing themselves. In most cases, the rationales for denying representation to residents of the capital of a nation ostensibly founded on the idea that taxation without representation is tyranny have shifted to become more partisan than overtly racist, but some of them remain essentially Morganist. In 2009 Tucker Carlson said D.C. was not “ready for democracy,” because it had elected Marion Barry as mayor. Barry was an extremely common American type—a corrupt ethnic-machine politician who was simultaneously an effective practitioner of patronage politics. But he was also Black; the alchemy of racism ensures that the flaws that transform Irish machine politicians into beloved and colorful characters turn Black machine politicians into proof of Black inferiority.

This argument, though, has persisted even as the city’s Black majority has become a plurality: D.C. cannot be allowed to govern itself, because its voters might make decisions that its overlords do not like. In some states, legislators who could not count to 20 without taking off their shoes make a show of passing idiotic and cruel legislation that violates their constituents’ most basic rights, but no one ever suggests that the voters who elected them be denied democratic self-determination as a result. The people of Washington, D.C., have no less a right to govern their own affairs than the people of Texas or Florida.

Far from proving that D.C. cannot govern itself, Congress’s interference with the city illustrates the necessity of D.C. statehood, even as it exposes the underlying reasons that the dream of statehood remains remote. Without real federal representation, there is no one to stand up for the city’s interests in Congress, and those who make decisions about the District’s affairs are accountable to constituents elsewhere, who have no reason to defend the city’s interests or autonomy. The Republican commitment to “local control” is entirely superficial; I grew up in D.C. and live in Texas, and it is very clear to me that the principle applies only to GOP-run jurisdictions, which are mysteriously always deemed fit for self-governance.

The ease with which the Democratic supporters of D.C. statehood have been manipulated into parroting the arguments of pundits and politicians who support disenfranchisement is pathetic, but unsurprising: Because D.C. residents are disenfranchised, it costs Democrats nothing to look tough on crime by disregarding home rule. After all, what are DC residents going to do, send a Republican to the Senate?

D.C. deserves statehood because its residents, who outnumber those of Wyoming and Vermont, have their own political and cultural identity and have the same right as every other American to determine their own fate. The city’s residents should be able to govern themselves without interference from politicians looking to burnish their reputations with their performative contempt for the people who actually live and work there.

To those who say that D.C. statehood is simply a matter of naked partisan interest (as if the opposition to it is not), I would say that is also the reason we have two Dakotas. It was only a month ago that the Biden administration put out a statement urging Congress to “respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.” Until D.C. has the shield of statehood and federal representation, neither party has any reason to listen.

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