Fulfilling a campaign promise, President Biden hosted a two-day Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9-10, an event that brought together (virtually) representatives from 110 nations—all of them, at least nominally, democracies. In a different time, it’s the kind of global meeting that would fetch the equivalent of polite applause in the American media universe. Another democracy-promotion event? How nice. Now on to sports and weather. But this is 2021, and democracy isn’t a given anymore, even in the world’s most durable democracy, the United States. According to Freedom House, global freedom has been in retreat for 15 consecutive years, with half of all democracies experiencing a “backslide” in one or more aspects of democracy over the past decade. That’s not just in far-flung places like Sudan, Myanmar, or Hong Kong. That’s right here in the good old U.S. of A. too.
So while the U.S. convened the summit, it came with a requisite dose of humility, as America’s democracy doesn’t look quite as durable as it once did. Local elected officials, like school board members and elections administrators, are resigning en masse across the country as angry confrontations and threats of violence against them are becoming commonplace. At least 19 states have enacted laws this year that will make it harder for Americans to vote, and rampant gerrymandering during the decennial redistricting process will deliberately dilute the voting power of certain communities. Most egregiously, false claims of a stolen election by a sitting president led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January—and a disturbingly pervasive loss of faith in democracy. “Here in the United States we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” Biden said at the summit, acknowledging these shameful realities.
The president proceeded to introduce the three overarching summit themes: strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; fighting corruption and protecting whistleblowers, civil society groups, and others actively engaged in rooting it out; and, most broadly, promoting respect for human rights. In his remarks to the gathered officials, Biden urged them to stand for such fundamental democratic ideals as equal justice, the rule of law, free speech and assembly, religious freedom, and freedom of the press. Within these larger buckets, participating leaders announced specific initiatives to “seed fertile ground for democracies to bloom around the world.” Here are a few that resonate with us at Renew America.
“Voting is an urgent matter”
On the critical issue of voting rights, the president had this to say: “What’s true around the world is also true in the United States. The sacred right to vote, to vote freely, the right to have your vote counted is the threshold liberty for democracy.” To demonstrate its commitment to the threshold liberty, the White House released a fact sheet ahead of the summit on steps the administration has taken to bolster democratic norms—doubling the number of voting rights attorneys in the Department of Justice and improving access to voter registration, for example. These steps are noble but nowhere near enough, in light of the perilous threats to our electoral system driven largely by the former president and his allies. To date, the Senate has failed to pass the two key pieces of legislation that would safeguard voting rights at the federal level—the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. It is on this issue that America has its most serious work to do.
“Sustaining independent media around the world”
Recognizing that an independent media is essential to democracy, the president announced a pair of initiatives that will reinforce American commitment to press freedom. The U.S. Agency for International Development will establish a global “defamation defense fund” to support investigative journalists in their “vital work around the world.” The U.S. also announced a joint effort with Australia, Denmark, and Norway that would stem the misuse of technology by authoritarian countries to stifle dissent. In addition, the initiative calls for establishing a code of conduct that would guide governments and tech companies on protecting human rights online.
“A year of action”
The president made the case that the U.S. and its allies need to act decisively to demonstrate that democracies are a better vehicle for advancing society than autocracies like China and Russia. To that end, Biden pledged that the U.S. would spend up to $424 million through the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal to build on the U.S.’s plans to fortify democracy. “Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?” Biden challenged the group. “Or will we together—together—have…the vision and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?” To answer that question, Biden called for the participating nations to reconvene next year for an in-person gathering to follow up on their collective progress.
“Democracy needs champions”
President Biden’s pledge to renew democracy, in part through the Summit for Democracy, is heartening. After all, democracies by nature tend to flourish when bolstered by other democracies. At their core, however, democracies are inherently local, and that’s where we—you, me, all of us—come in. Like everything in a functional democracy, nothing happens without us. At the macro level, there is a conflict across the world between democracy and autocracy. But if there’s still truth to the old axiom that says “as America goes, so goes the world,” the internal problems threatening our own democracy, if unresolved, may prove just as universally damaging. In his remarks, Biden stated, “American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions and recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation, captured in our Declaration of Independence.” We all have a personal role to play in that. The world is counting on us.