President Biden is not new to US politics. He has also suffered deep personal tragedy that he has tried, as best as possible, to come to terms with. It has made him look at life and other people with a sense of humility and caring. Donning the role of ‘healer’ will, consequently, come naturally. This was tellingly apparent when he spoke to the American people in his first ever Town Hall. It was also heard across the globe with interest because of the range of issues covered.
While his decades in American politics would have been a great learning experience professionally, none of it would have prepared him for the events of January 6th, where a rampaging mob desecrated Capitol Hill. What must have appalled him, as it did across the globe, was the role of the sitting president and his political allies. For Biden, this was simply unconscionable because what was under attack was democracy itself.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that the events of January 6th would be remembered for a long time to come.
It appeared as if the practice of democracy was in freefall in the US. Decades of democratic governance still saw inequality and discrimination alongside great wealth and power. How Biden navigates this difficult terrain would be watched closely because in other countries, as well, democracy was in retreat.
For Biden, the challenge is to heal a wounded nation and move from insurrection to resurrection and rekindle the idea of America that now stands threatened – what she stands for, what defines her and what it means for Americans to be American. It is for this reason alone that Biden vowed to be a President for all Americans. His journey will not be easy because what he has been called upon to do is to repair a broken architecture or create an entirely new and more inclusive one.
In his very first foreign policy speech, on February 5th, Biden reiterated the importance he attaches to democracy and its practice and emphasized that it would be the cornerstone of not only his domestic policy but also his foreign policy. He identified the contours of US diplomacy as ‘defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law and treating every person with dignity’. This will become a recurrent theme through his presidency.
He raised the point again during his first Town Hall on February 17th, while discussing Myanmar, where a democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup. The Biden Administration had not only issued a tough statement asking the military to return to their barracks and restore the elected government but also threatened Myanmar with sanctions. With the situation escalating in Myanmar, which some analysts have described as ‘poised for disaster’, Biden knows that the quality of US response would be the barometer with which US foreign policy would be gauged across the world and especially, by Beijing. How far is he willing to go, in other words, to demonstrate that he means what he says. There would be a temptation to respond forcefully but Biden is also aware that US action should not destabilize the region as a consequence.
Biden is also mindful that democracies are fragile, even flawed, because there is no such thing as ‘a perfect democracy’. He also recognizes, consequently, that every democracy needs to incorporate and be responsive to contextual demands. There cannot, therefore, be a single narrative on democracy. Managing cultural, religious, ethnic or linguistic diversity is not bestowed on a country by others. Rather, it is crafted in accordance with local and national requirements. While it might be acceptable in Denmark or in the Netherlands, for instance, to publish caricatures of Prophet Mohammad, as part of freedom of speech, in a country, like India, with 130 million Muslims, it would be totally unacceptable because hurting religious sentiments could trigger widespread communal tensions domestically.
It is a series of nuanced differences and the need for multiple narratives to co-exist that makes democracy constantly in a process of evolution and refinement, an attempt at betterment for a more inclusive and empowered society, while ensuring that the basic tenets of freedom of speech, of the press and the judiciary, and civil rights are kept intact and strengthened.
Biden is also aware that the US, as the oldest democracy, has long remained an inspiration, despite its many flaws, especially in its treatment of the black community. Systemic racism is not a thing of the past. Twenty-eight years after the Rodney King murder George Floyd also died on account of police brutality. According to a recent report, black Americans are three times more likely to be infected by COVID 19 than whites because of the appalling conditions they live in. Biden recognizes the existence – indeed, persistence – of this divide and how it has emboldened white right-wing supremacists. In his inaugural speech and subsequently, he repeatedly pointed to this and vowed to address it during his presidency.
One of the earliest analyses of American democracy is by the French diplomat and political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his two-volume books published in 1835 and 1840 respectively, has pointed to the pre-eminent pillars on which American democracy is built as being education, strengthening civil society at the local level, and greater social awareness.
Open societies provide greater opportunity for democracy to flourish, unlike those that are insular. The latter tend to be preoccupied with their immediate surroundings and local issues rather than the bigger picture and the overall domestic situation or the international space that impacts daily life. Consequently, dislike for the foreigner, the outsider, the immigrant and the unfamiliar becomes an inevitable by-product. The handicap of insularity and the lack of social awareness helps us understand how the first victim of hate crime in the US, after 9/11, was an elderly Sikh-American citizen was mistaken for being a Muslim because of his beard.
At the heart of a strong democracy lies greater awareness of the external environment we are part of. Sociologists refer to this as the socialization process. Closed societies breed insular thinking and bigotry and this is also part of the socialization process. When people live in micro-spaces oblivious of the existence of others, they become blind-sighted. Strengthening democracy requires expanding mindsets, challenging entrenched viewpoints and opening up to an enriching diversity. This is what a strong education system can help deliver.
At the same time, even the educated have flawed democracies. The recent incident in New Zealand where the Speaker ejected a sitting Maori Parliamentarian from the House for not wearing a tie suggests that the discourse on democracy needs to recognize that holding western democracies as benchmarks is fraught with danger. The action by the New Zealand Speaker was, by all standards, shockingly racist and biased against the indigenous people. Unless long-entrenched biases ae removed, education per se would not strengthen democracy.
Biden recognizes that the road to strengthening democracy is not an easy one. Domestically, he faces a challenge. After all, 75 million Americans voted a second term for his predecessor, who continues to command significant influence among his supporters while at the same time, demonstrating the fragility of democracy. The power of an autocratic leader, such as Trump, or a formidable adversary, such as, the military should never be underestimated.
We forget the lessons of history only at our peril. Hitler, after all, was democratically elected.
(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)