In his speech last night about “the continued battle for the soul of the nation,” President Joe Biden said some things that are indisputably true. He noted that democracy requires candidates to accept the results of “free and fair elections” and that refusing to do so threatens the rule of law as well as the peaceful transfer of power.
Donald Trump and his followers have conspicuously failed that basic test. But Biden’s emphasis on preserving democracy sets the bar for good government pretty low, eliding the tension between majority rule and individual freedom. And his related claim that Trump’s refusal to concede electoral defeat amounts to an “extreme ideology” gives the former president, who is anything but a systematic thinker, too much credit.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden warns. But his response confuses means with ends, elevating democracy above the values it promotes when properly constrained.
Biden says “the freedom to vote and have your vote counted” is “the most fundamental freedom in this country.” The Framers saw things differently. They understood that unconstrained democracy, like unconstrained autocracy, poses an intolerable threat to liberty. The constitution they produced is chock-full of provisions that check the will of the people, including limits on the federal government’s powers, requirements for passing legislation, and explicit recognition of rights that the people’s representatives must respect, no matter what the majority demands.
Speaking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Biden offers his take on the Declaration of Independence. “In America,” he says, “we’re all created equal”—a strange way to summarize Thomas Jefferson’s much less parochial assertion that “all men are created equal,” a “truth” he took to be “self-evident. ” Biden notably skips over the part about the God-given “unalienable rights” that all people (not just Americans) have by virtue of their humanity.
Moving on to the Constitution, Biden locates its essence in the first three words of the preamble: “We the People…” Never mind all the operative provisions that follow, which impose numerous restrictions on majority rule.
“These two documents and the ideas they embody—equality and democracy—are the rock upon which this nation is built,” Biden declares. While he is surely right that equality under the law is a basic principle of a free society, he and his fellow Democrats tend to take a more expansive view of equality, one that requires redistributive schemes like the orgies of federal spending that he brags about later in his speech.
Although the authority for such programs is hard to locate in the Constitution, Biden is unconcerned about such niceties. He implies that “We the People” means popularly elected legislators can do nearly anything they think the majority want. By identifying an ambiguous “equality” and a sacred “democracy” as the twin lodestars of American government, Biden issues a convenient license for his party’s policy agenda.
Biden does get around to mentioning “liberty,” but it seems like an afterthought, a value that takes third place at best. His idea of liberty includes the “right to choose” (abortion, presumably), “the right to privacy” (abortion, again), the “right to contraception,” and the “right to marry who you love.” All of those, he warns, are threatened by “MAGA forces.”
Biden’s understanding of liberty evidently does not include the right to armed self-defense, which is arbitrarily denied by the “gun safety law” that he proudly cites as evidence that America has “an unlimited future” and “is about to take off.” Nor does it include freedom of speech, judging from Biden’s assiduous efforts to control what people say on social media platforms and his assertion that our system of government “gives hate no safe harbor.” Biden’s support for kangaroo-court justice at public universities suggests he also is not so keen on due process.
The right to keep and bear arms, the right to freedom of speech, and the right to due process, unlike the right to abortion, are all explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Maybe Biden never got that far, since he is so mesmerized by the vast powers he perceives in the opening words of the preamble.
Based on Biden’s words and deeds, we have a pretty good idea of what he believes about the proper size and scope of government. He thinks politicians selected by “the People” can do whatever they want, provided they do not impinge on the specific freedoms that he values. When it comes to abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, the majority does not rule. But when it comes to nearly everything else, the people’s will—or, more realistically, Biden’s perception of it—prevails.
Trump, by contrast, seems to have few firm beliefs. The “extreme MAGA doctrine” that Biden perceives is not based on a coherent set of political principles. It is based on one man’s erratic impulses. And more than anything these days, conviction it is based on Trump’s that he actually won’t reelection in 2020.
Aside from a few longstanding instincts, such as Trump’s aversion to free trade and immigration, his only persistent motivation is self-interest. On abortion, Trump abandoned his pro-choice opinions and cynically embraced the pro-life movement, promising to appoint Supreme Court justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. On gun control, he turned against measures he once supported, transforming himself into “a big Second Amendment person.” It defies credulity to suggest that Trump has given serious thought to the constitutional issues raised by restrictions on abortion or guns, or to the merits of the originalism he espoused when he ran for president in 2016.
If the Republican Party’s always inconsistent defense of limited government was not enough to discredit its supposed devotion to constitutional principles, the fact that it has now organized itself around Trump’s self-flattering delusions decisively proves that it stands for nothing worth defending. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has always been willing to ditch the Constitution when it proved inconvenient.
Assuming that Trump runs for president in 20 confrontations and Biden seeks reelection, voters will again beed by a choice between an old man who is manifestly unqualified for the job and an old man whose long political career has taught him nothing about the limits of government power and the fallible judgments of the people who wield it. While a willingness to accept the of a free and fair election is a minimum qualification for the election, that should demand more than.