President Joe Biden is girding himself for an epic confrontation of democracy vs. autocracy at his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, even as some Republicans back at home are openly questioning if democracy has much of anything to do with America at all.
The defense of democracy has so far been the ideological cause of Biden's presidency. "This is democracy's day," he said in his inaugural address, promising to pursue unity at all costs and defend people's rights to disagree.
He's come back to the theme repeatedly, including in his address to Congress in April, when he declared: "We have to prove that democracy still works."
Earlier this week, as he brought NATO and members of the G7 in line, he said: "I think we're in a contest -- not with China per se, but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world -- as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century."
Putin's Russia actively meddles in US elections, persecutes its own political opposition, appears to harbor criminals who target US infrastructure and repeatedly looks to take land by force. It is, along with China, where a bastardized version of communism has blended with oligarchy, the autocratic antipode of Biden's vision of democracy.
More than a clash of ideas. There's a realpolitik element behind everything, and as CNN's Stephen Collinson writes, even the genesis of this summit started with a diplomatic element underneath its clash of ideas.
"The greatest success of the summit may be what it stopped from happening, not what it achieves on Wednesday," Collinson writes. "Biden surprised many in Washington by suggesting the talks. But the invitation came at a time when Russian troops were massed on Ukraine's border, with many observers fearing a full-scale invasion and with the imprisoned [opposition leader Alexey] Navalny apparently close to death after being denied medical treatment."
He added: "The President's carrot offered Putin a platform he craves alongside the US commander in chief that comes with the implied respect for Moscow some other recent US leaders have discarded, and that will be maximized by Russia's propaganda machine." Read the whole thing here.
Stage-managing everything. The two men will meet for hours, although never apparently alone, as Trump did with Putin, and they will not conduct a joint news conference. There will be a herculean effort to control the post-summit perceptions.
The Americans opposed a joint news conference and Russians pushed for it, writes CNN's Maegan Vazquez. "The US resisted because they did not want to give Putin a platform like he had after a 2018 summit with former President Donald Trump in Helsinki. Officials said they were mindful of Putin's desire to appear like he'd gotten the better of a US president, and wanted to avoid a situation that devolved into a tit-for-tat playing out in public."
Biden is no newbie to high-level diplomacy. He gave Barack Obama some foreign policy cred as vice president. But even earlier, he was a statesman as a senator.
CNN's Christopher Hickey documented Biden's long history with Russia in a very good visual timeline. The part that surprised me was his trip in the 1980s as Ronald Reagan's secret emissary along with fellow then-Sen. William Cohen:
"Reagan wrote in his diary that the two had 'been to Russia and are all wrapped up in "arms reductions." I suspect that at least one of them (J.B.) doesn't believe I'm sincere about wanting them.' "
Democracy is having some troubles. Back then, the US might have smirked at the USSR about the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, there are legitimate questions about the condition of American democracy.
- A large portion of Republicans either believe in a massive and ridiculous election fraud conspiracy or are willing to entertain the notion.
- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a stated goal of obstructing all of Biden's priorities, and the Senate's baroque rules will let him do it.
- McConnell teased that he wouldn't allow a Supreme Court justice to be seated, maybe at all, ever, if Biden is President and Republicans gain control of the Senate.
- There's a painful ongoing conversation about how minorities have been locked out of the country's decision making and how to view American history in light of that.
- If Republicans are to win control of the House and Senate in 2022, which is a very real possibility, it will be in large part because they worked doggedly to make it harder for people to vote early in key states and banked on the restrictions hurting Democrats.
Questioning the very idea of democracy. Add to all those facts the open argument by Sen. Rand Paul this week that democracy isn't even what the country is built on.
"The idea of democracy and majority rule really is what goes against our history and what the country stands for," the Kentucky Republican told The New York Times in a story published Monday, arguing it was his job to obstruct the majority. "The Jim Crow laws came out of democracy. That's what you get when a majority ignores the rights of others."
CNN's Chris Cillizza pointed out that Paul's argument is in line with a similar point made by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah in 2020 and that, yes, the US is a representative democracy, but also that such disdain for democracy is awkward in a country that has "We the people ..." as the opening to its founding document.
The truth about Jim Crow. More importantly, Paul's point about Jim Crow laws seemed incredibly off to me, so I called Steven Reich, a historian at James Madison University who has written about them. He pointed out there were Jim Crow laws that segregated people, but also the concurrent effort to regulate elections and make it harder for people to vote, specifically disfranchising Black people. It was a self-selected majority.
"It's not accurate," Reich said of Paul's analysis. Jim Crow "came out of a complete manipulation of the electoral rules."
Which is something that sounds somewhat familiar, albeit on a different scale, if you've been following Republican efforts to change election rules in key states.
I flipped the idea of democracy around and asked Reich if he thought Biden was wrong, given the difficulties of American democracy right now, to push the democracy vs. autocracy narrative.
He said Biden should maybe be making a stronger case for pluralism -- where everyone has the same equal rights and access to political power. And the time when the most people in the US could vote is since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed. For all the difficulties, the most pluralistic the US has ever been is right now, not in a romanticized past.