A Closing Argument for Democracy

The president defends American institutions, but it might be too late.

Joe Biden delivers remarks on democracy in Washington, D.C., November 2, 2022.
Joe Biden delivers remarks on democracy in Washington, D.C., November 2, 2022. (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

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Joe Biden asked Americans to remember that democracy is on the ballot next week. He seemed dispirited. I understand why.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Democracy on the Ballot

Near the end of the 1972 movie version of the Broadway musical 1776, John Adams is by himself in the congressional chamber after all of the delegates, friend and foe, have walked out on him. He has refused to budge on abolishing slavery in the new Constitution, and now all is lost, or so it seems. Alone in the dark, Adams asks, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”

I thought of this scene while watching Joe Biden at Union Station last night pleading with his fellow citizens to not abandon our democratic institutions and norms. Biden seemed disheartened, and understandably so. He was making a closing argument for American democracy, and he seemed to be wondering if anybody is out there to hear the message—and whether anybody cares.

I wonder too.

Biden’s aides claim that he had been thinking for some time after his “Soul of the Nation” speech last summer in Philadelphia about making another statement on threats to democracy, but the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband seems to have persuaded the president to speak out now. I suspect that Biden feels, as I and others do, that what happened to Paul Pelosi—and, more important, the callous and disgusting reaction to it among some Republicans—marked a watershed moment.

The brief speech in Union Station was a landmark address, but by that I do not mean that it was a great speech. There was no soaring rhetoric; there were no quotable phrases. Instead, the president of the United States talked about how his friend had been put in the hospital by a man with a hammer, and then asked the rest of us to think about whether we can stop our system of government from descending into authoritarianism and violence. No matter who wins or loses next week, that is an astounding question, and it is the right one to ask.

The usual suspects in conservative media are, of course, dismissing Biden’s speech as just another partisan exercise. Their criticisms are partly a reflection of how denatured and corroded the American right has become now that it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump’s cult of personality. Few of them can imagine anyone doing anything as a matter of principle: Once you’ve sold your own soul, you are loath to believe that anyone else has kept theirs.

Biden’s speech, however, sounded more like despair than partisanship. It’s not exactly shocking that a Democratic president would like to keep his congressional majority, but if that’s all Biden wanted, he could have made a better pitch for it. Instead, he ignored the economy, despite the polls showing that economic issues are at the top of voter concerns, and he took a direct swing at Donald Trump and “MAGA Republicans,” which could alienate the last remaining moderate GOP voters.

More important, he nationalized the issue of democracy by warning about the election deniers in state and local contests using their victories to unravel our electoral processes, and he anticipated the trouble that is likely to come if those same extremists lose and refuse to accept the outcome:

As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America—for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state—who won’t commit, that will not commit to accepting the results of the election that they’re running in. This is a path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful, and it’s un-American.

Biden called on Americans to summon two of our most endangered virtues—patience and faith—on election night. He knows that there is likely to be dangerous mischief on November 8, not least because so many Republicans have essentially promised it and, in some cases, done their best to ensure it.

The president’s appeal to defend our democratic values will exasperate supposed pragmatists who believe that all people want to hear about is the price of cereal and bananas. Maybe the pragmatists are right, and voters don’t care about anything else. But a president betrays his oath to defend the Constitution if he allows his concerns about our democracy to be held hostage to the price of a gallon of gasoline. Presidents, unlike the occupants of lesser offices, must speak to the American people like they are adults capable of thinking about many things at one time, including foreign policy, crime, inflation—and the state of our democracy.

And maybe the pragmatists are also correct that reminding Americans of their responsibilities as the stewards of their own freedoms will backfire. Democrats might well lose control of both houses this fall, and there’s little evidence that Biden’s speech will do much to prevent that. (As  the New Yorker writer Susan Glasser asked on Twitter during the speech, “Biden sounds like he's trying to persuade Americans about the threat to democracy. But who is there left to persuade?”)

At the moment, however, a slew of candidates across the nation are promising to ditch the Constitution and the rule of law; armed goons are positioning themselves near ballot boxes in Arizona; Republicans and their supporters are making sick jokes about an alleged attempt to kidnap and torture the speaker of the House. Only the most self-absorbed and selfish leader would refuse to speak out. We had enough of that with the last president.

This speech will soon be buried and forgotten in a blizzard of media cynicism and the buzz of impending election news. But the president of the United States told us something important last night. The only question is whether anyone cares.


Today’s News
  1. Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was wounded at a rally after a man shot at his convoy.
  2. Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Israel conceded the election to Benjamin Netanyahu, setting the stage for Netanyahu to return to his former role as prime minister at the head of a far-right coalition.
  3. The White House announced that U.S. embassy officials in Russia have met with the imprisoned WNBA player Brittney Griner.

Evening Read
Illustration of a sad person sitting on the disc of a flat Earth. From above, a helping hand reaches out from a hovering smiley face
(Jan Buchczik)

How to Love People Who Love Conspiracies

By Arthur Brooks

In these polarized times, one of the laments I hear a lot from readers and friends is that people they are close to have fallen prey to conspiracy theories. This is strikingly common; after all, some scholars estimate that, in recent years, half of Americans endorsed at least one such belief.

Perhaps you are cringing as you look toward Thanksgiving, when someone you love will explain the truth about the midterm elections, or the real origins of the coronavirus. It can be very upsetting to hear a friend or family member say things that seem to you like obvious, falsifiable nonsense—it can feel almost as if they had joined a cult.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A still from the Netflix show 'Blockbuster'
A still from the Netflix show Blockbuster. (Netflix)

Read. “Disaster Means ‘Without a Star,’” a poem by Franny Choi.

“Human History, a front parlor / infinitely painted over with massacre, and into the fray came I, highly allergic, / quick to cry, and armed with fat fists of need.”

Watch. Blockbuster, on Netflix, is a new sitcom about an obsolete business—and a meditation on our age of precarity.

Play our daily crossword.


Speaking of the movie 1776, this would be a good time to see it if you’ve never had the pleasure (or to rewatch it for a bit of preelection inspiration). Adapted from the Broadway show that won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical—you can see shots from the original production here—the movie is a delightful if mildly ahistorical retelling of the summer when America chose independence. The songs will stay with you, along with some witty dialogue and fine dramatic moments, including the showstopping “Molasses to Rum,” in which South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge slices Adams’s New England sanctimony about slavery to pieces. (Also, make sure to pull up the original Broadway soundtrack so you can hear “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” a slam on conservatives that the producer Jack Warner took out of the film at the request of none other than President Richard Nixon.)

There is a new production of the play currently on Broadway, but I am too much of a curmudgeon to see it; I tend to like the original version of almost everything by nature, and the actor William Daniels will always be the voice of John Adams to me (although Paul Giamatti’s stunning performance as our second president in a 2008 HBO miniseries was a triumph). Yes, it’s Broadway and Hollywood, and it’s all very chipper and singable, but maybe a few hours of idealistic patriotism is just what we need right now.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.