Is former-Vice President Biden’s campaign for president promising to reverse potential democratic backsliding in the United States?
American voters tend to elect a president who cures the single biggest perceived character deficiency of the previous president. President Bush was poorly spoken and seemed out of touch, while President Obama was a brilliant orator. By the end of his presidency people felt that President Obama was aloofand sounded like a professor, while President Trump sounds like the anti-professor and uses words like “bigly”. While some voters appreciated Trump’s status as an outsider, his campaign and behavior in office has eroded many of the norms and “guardrails” that protect liberal democracy in the United States. Therefore, by running on “a return to normalcy” platform, former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign rhetoric can be understood as an implicit promise to reverse democratic backsliding while still appealing to Trump’s disheartened white working-class base.
As an executive aggrandizing president, Trump has successfully eroded democratic norms, through attacking the legitimacy of institutions and norms that oppose him and his agenda. Nancy Bermeo argues in“On Democratic Backsliding” that executive aggrandizers “hamper[s] the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” They often do so by attacking the press, undermining the judiciary and the idea of its independence, and ignoring the norms that constrain political actors in a liberal democracy. Trump has engaged in many of those behaviors himself, causing renewed speculation that the United States is undergoing democratic backsliding in works such as Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die. Trump has labeled unfavorable news media “fake news media” and taken away press privileges from those that are particularly critical of him such as CNN’s Jim Acosta. He attacked the Special Counsel’s office as being led by 13 angry Democrats, thereby assailing both its legitimacy and political independence. In addition to violating norms associated with protecting the free press even if it’s critical of the administration, honoring the judiciary even if it constrains the presidency (which is rare anyways, according to Huq and Ginsburg’s How to Save a Constitutional Democracy), Trump has called forthe end of the filibuster after democrats filibustered his appointment of now-Justice Gorsuch.
After two plus years of a Trump presidency, many of the candidates running for president, even if they oppose Trump and claim that he is undermining American democracy, have not refrained from attacking the norms and institutions that could constrain their own presidencies. Elizabeth Warren is campaigningon the abolishment of the electoral college. Changing the rules of the game, in this case how the presidency itself is selected, sounds like directly changing the institutional arrangements to favor one’s own cause, which Bermeo associateswith democratic backsliders. While less drastic then rewriting the electoral rules, candidates O’Rourke, Buttigieg, Harris, Warren, and Gillibrandare all on record favoring increasing the size of the Supreme Court above its norm-established nine justices should they be elected. Warren, Inslee, and Buttigiegall support axing the filibuster. However, they are their co-partisans claimed that axing the filibuster was an existential threat to American democracy when Trump called for ending it.
Although these candidates claim to support reforms to “improve American democracy”, their ideas to undermine norms of American democracy in order to preserve it are unconvincing. How different is this than when promissory coup leaders in Bermeo’s formulation say they are coming to “save the democracy” by “pausing the democracy”?!?! Norms are, by definition, supposed to be apolitical, because they only work if both side respect them and work together to preserve them. Furthermore, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, one of the hallmarks of healthy liberal democracy is a system where the majority party works with the minority party. Removing the filibuster signals just the opposite, as it is a move designed solely to strip the minority of its limited power to force the majority party to compromise. Instead of attacking democratic norms in order to reverse the damage done by the Trump presidency, Joe Biden’s platform and candidacy emphasizes bipartisanship and offers a pathway to reverse democratic backsliding instead of replacing Trump-driven erosion with another form of erosion.
Unlike the some of the other candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, Biden’s campaign rhetoric has emphasized ways to restore faith in American democracy in order to implement progressive change without undermining norms. Biden is not on record supporting eliminating the filibuster, increasing the size of the Supreme Court, or abolishing the electoral college. While other candidates have alluded to claims that the time for compromise is over, Biden has promised to seek out bipartisan solutions andemphasizedhis own bipartisan achievements in his campaign speeches to the point that pundits are wonderingif “he is too bipartisan”. If Trump’s hyper-partisan attempts to do whatever he can without the Democrats including advocating for the limiting of the filibuster, one of the few tools that the minority has in American politics, pose a threat to undermine American democracy, then promises to do more of the same will probably lead to more of the same. However, Biden’s promised bipartisan solutions offer an avenue to reverse erosion by restoring faith in American democracy by reducing polarization. While political science literature remains unconvinced as to whether polarization causes democratic erosion,dataclearly shows that they are related. Therefore, by promising to restore norms and search for bipartisan solutions, Joe Biden’s rhetoric attempts to offer a possible mechanism to reverse democratic erosion for those particularly worried about the erosion of democratic norms by President Trump.
Ginsburg, T. and Huq, A.Z., 2018. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. University of Chicago Press.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 6.
Image: Photo by Paul J. Richards, Joe Biden “by himself could never do anything,” President Donald Trump said, pointing out that the former senator ran for president twice unsuccessfully. “President Obama took him out of the garbage heap … made him vice president, and he was fine.“ (Getty Images), Politico.”