The President has not changed his mind about how important democracy is; he didn’t just decide that bridges and highways are a higher priority than the right to vote. Rather, Biden has made a tactical choice. He is wagering that improving infrastructure, creating jobs and raising standards of living for the bulk of Americans will prove a more effective way to show democracy works than shifting procedures on how to vote. It’s a gamble, and like every gamble, it may or may not pay off.
But Biden could have done more — worked harder to create voter pressure on legislators, spoken out more frequently, toured the country promoting the bill — and frustrated progressives want him to. “It’s always good to hear from your leader,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They want him to use more of his considerable power to exert the necessary pressure to achieve results.
But that’s not the entire story.
Biden understands that voting rights are paramount to safeguarding democracy. But from what he has said we know that he believes the future of democracy depends on something beyond everyone’s right to cast a ballot. What matters more is persuading the public that this is a system that produces tangible results for them. If the system doesn’t give you a better life, some may ask, why is it so important to protect it?
Biden has been making that case for months, at home and abroad, even as democracy loses ground across the globe and comes under assault in the United States.
Biden’s tactic to help a besieged democracy survive goes beyond securing the right to vote. It also goes beyond waxing eloquent about the value of freedom and the human costs of autocracy. The President does give the philosophical speeches, and he warns about those looming dangers. But he is a pragmatic idealist, and he’s counting on Americans having the same inclination. It’s almost as if he hears them say, “If democracy is better, let it prove it.”
That’s why his first priority was breaking the back of the pandemic and helping those whose livelihoods were most deeply affected, and his second one is reinvigorating the economy for the long haul with an ambitious infrastructure plan.
The risk is that, as Biden allocates his finite political capital toward longer-range programs, even as Republicans focus sharply on strangling Democrats’ efforts to strengthen voting rights, he is allowing the most fundamental mechanism of democracy, the act of voting, to become increasingly difficult for citizens to exercise.
If his gamble fails, he could end up creating prosperity and well-being, just in time for the party that is undercutting democracy to take power.