The principles of classical liberalism that underlie the American political system emerged in an era, the late 17th century, when people were exhausted by violent religious wars. The philosophy that eventually created our democracy was therefore designed to “lower the temperature of politics,” as Francis Fukuyama has recently written, to take issues of existential truth off the table so that people could live in safety. In liberal democracies, citizens were persuaded to adopt a culture of moderation, restraint, and adherence to the rule of law; respect for the rights of others to think what they want; support for independent courts, checks and balances, and neutral institutions like election boards. None of that has necessarily been very inspiring to people who want high emotion, feelings of unity, or moral crusades in public life. In Liberalism and its Discontents, Fukuyama argues that the values of liberal democracy are by definition “thinner than those offered by societies found by a single religious doctrine,” and he is right.
This is the deep source of the most serious problem facing Joe Biden, and not just Joe Biden: How to energize citizens to defend moderation, how to create excitement around institutions that were designed not to be exciting, how to build enthusiasm for the political center—the people of all political beliefs who still respect the rules and understand why they are important. Above all, how to get Americans to see that the challenge presented by the “MAGA Republicans,” as the president called them in his speech last night, is not a normal political challenge. Trump’s political movement is not a threat to liberal democracy because of its beliefs about taxes, spending, welfare, immigration, energy policy, or even abortion, however vehemently some Americans might disagree with them. Nor is it threatening because it is conservative, for it is not conservative in the traditional sense at all.
MAGA Republicans are rather a threat because their leader does not accept the outcome of elections when he loses them; because he does not believe that the rule of law applies to him; because he does not adhere to the culture of restraint, tolerance, and moderation; and because he is now seeking to help elect other politicians who feel the same way. In their drive to change the political system, and to ensure that they can retain power even if they lose, Trump’s followers have verbally and sometimes physically attacked Capitol police officers, election workers, the FBI, the Department of Justice, civil servants. He and his acolytes use violent language, and they inspire violence in return. As Biden put it last night, they “tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people. This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.”
For most of his presidency, Biden has dealt with this problem by largely ignoring it, scarcely mentioning Trump at all. Instead, he sought to change the subject, to speak about infrastructure or climate policy instead of existential issues. As a way of dealing with violent political division, this tactic has a long history. It was used in Northern Ireland, for example, where the idea was to get people to talk about building community centers so that they would stop talking about killing each other. Some European politicians challenged by the far-right in their own countries have tried something similar. Pablo Casado, until recently the leader of the Spanish center right, once told me he wanted to focus on the economic issues underlying the culture wars. He hoped to build support among people who wanted a pragmatic conversation, not an ideological one.
But in a culture as noisy as ours, and in a world where social-media algorithms automatically promote the most emotional thoughts and messages, this tactic can fail. Moderate language gets drowned out. Talk of infrastructure sounds boring; climate change seems too distant a prospect to matter. Restraint can seem like weakness or indifference. Another European politician, the Polish center-right leader Donald Tusk (who is also fighting an anti-democratic political movement), has told me that he thinks politicians have to be “willing to sacrifice something, risk something” or their voters won’t take them seriously. In Biden’s case, moderation can also seem like exhaustion, as if he is too old and too tired to care deeply anymore.
But clearly, Biden does care. And so he has taken the risky and genuinely brave decision to use emotional language in defense of our rules-based political system. The speech he gave last night at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the place where a lot of those rules were written, was indeed lit and orchestrated to evoke drama. It was also meant to evoke strong feelings of patriotism, unity and connection. Biden referenced American history—”We, the people, have burning inside of each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall”—as well as American pride. He contrasted Trump’s dark, apocalyptic worldview with his own: “I see a different America, an America with an unlimited future, an America that’s about to take off.” The United States, he said, “is still the beacon to the world, an ideal to be realized, a promise to be kept. There’s nothing more important. Nothing more sacred.”
Biden in fact used the religious word “sacred” three other times, speaking of “sacred ground,” the “sacred flame,” the “sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God.” But he sought to evoke anger as well as patriotism. When he excoriated the MAGA Republicans, he did not use the normal political language of disagreement but rather called their movement a form of “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” Finally he issued a call to action, telling Americans what he thought they should do about it: not commit retaliatory violence but “speak up, speak out, get engaged, vote, vote, vote!”
The use of political emotion in a deeply divided society carries some dangers. It is guaranteed to provoke an equally emotional response on the other side, raising temperatures instead of lowering them. Angry language makes the other side angry too, and can also galvanize voters. Precisely that reaction rippled all across the pro-Trump media and social media last night after the speech. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared that the president had “crossed into a very dangerous, very dangerous place.” Biden was accused of “criminalizing political opposition.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Biden had chosen “to divide, demean, and disparage his fellow Americans.” The Republican Party will undoubtedly start fundraising among those Americans who do indeed feel demeaned and disparaged. I expect some Democrats will feel uneasy about Biden’s speech for the same reason.
Another danger is that the speech will be seen as partisan, as a plea for people to vote for Democrats, rather than as a call for all Americans to support liberal democracy. Clearly the White House was aware of this danger, which is why Biden addressed himself to “Democrats, independents and mainstream Republicans.” That’s also why he went out of his way to note that “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.” Unfortunately, the timing of the speech, in the run-up to the midterm elections, will lead many to dismiss it anyway. So will Biden’s oblique and (in this context) possibly unnecessary references to abortion and contraception. Republican politicians and television presenters will deliberately frame the speech so that GOP voters interpret it as partisan, and many voters will only ever hear that commentary, and not listen to the words of the speech at all.
Most dangerous of all though, is the possibility that in a tribalized political system like ours, the Constitution, once it is championed by one political camp, may itself come to seem like a partisan cause, a thing that Democrats and maybe Liz Cheney care about, but nobody else. If, to be a fully paid-up member of the Republican Party, you have to go on pretending that the 2020 election was stolen and the January 6 insurrectionists were patriots, then you may eventually come to believe that rule of law is something to be defeated, not respected. Election laws become a thing that your enemies care about, not you.
Biden is betting that we are not at that stage yet. The language of his speech presumed that, in making an emotional appeal in favor of liberal democracy, he was still speaking to a decisive majority of the country. That’s why he kept using the expression we the people, a phrase that of course references the Constitution, but also expresses a sense of unity—a unity that should, in principle, still include people with a huge range of political tastes and views. “We the people,” he said, “accept the results of free and fair elections.” We, the people “see politics, not as total war, but mediation of our differences.” And once again: “We the people,” Biden said “have burning inside of each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall.”
That sentence assumes that the 17th-century ideas that were debated in Philadelphia in the 18th-century still mean something to the citizens who live by them today. Biden clearly believes they do. The future of liberal democracy in America depends on whether or not he is right.