July 15, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
No, there’s nothing ‘demagogic and dangerous’ about a president taking the side of democracy
More on the Very Serious Debate Club.
Earlier this month, I introduced you to the concept of the Very Serious Debate Club. This is about half the pundit corps in Washington, I guessed, columnists and talking heads who believe everything in politics is as good or bad as everything else, and that nothing matters except whether or not they appear to be on the winning side. They are immensely clever, highly educated, almost always born successful and hence respected. At the same time, they don’t really care about much of anything they say, because the point of debate isn’t being wrong or right but instead the glorification of the debater.
In short, they are cynical, opportunistic and amoral. If politics has clear moral sides—for instance, whether free, full and fair elections are key to the identity of a country like ours claiming to be a democracy—members of the Very Serious Debate Club will strive mightily to ascertain ways of muddying up the moral picture so that those who do take sides seem to be the real culprits since extreme points of view, however moral or immoral, are presumed bad bad bad, even if an extreme view is pro-democracy.
The more Americans believe that nothing matters, that the game is rigged and that morality has nothing to do with winning, the worse things are for normal people and the common good, which is better for the Republicans.
The president took a clear moral side in a speech Tuesday. He went so far as to name the enemies of the republic. “There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections,” Joe Biden said. “An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are as Americans. … Bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.1 It gives me no pleasure to say this. … But I swore an oath to you, to God, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That’s an oath that forms a sacred trust to defend America against all threats, both foreign and domestic.”
The speech arose from efforts by state Republicans to codify into state law Donald Trump’s Big Lie about voter fraud being the reason he lost the 2020 presidential election. Anyone reading believe the lines, which is to say anyone can read between these lies, could see that Trump and the Republicans are those domestic threats.
This provoked a fiery response from Henry Olsen, a columnist for the Post who I normally regard as a conservative but harmless polemicist—“harmless” in the sense that he occasionally said fascism was bad during Trump’s one and only term. But it appears I was wrong. In his column on Wednesday, Olsen wrote that the president is just as bad as the former president in that his speech was “demagogic and dangerous.”
It’s bad enough that Trump is telling his minions he won the election, causing them to distrust our elections process. Biden’s overheated accusations push his followers to the same conclusion. We can’t have a functioning democracy if activists in both parties neither trust nor accept the outcome. Next year’s elections will be free and fair in every state, just as they were in 2020. It’s a shame that Biden, who says he wants to heal the country, is instead adding his voice to those that tear it down.
This is what the Very Serious Debate Club does so very well. It takes an immoral act—like restricting universal suffrage in states like Georgia with “election integrity measures” designed to address a theoretical crime that does not exist in any way meaningful to election outcomes—and equates it with a moral act—in this case, Biden demanded that the Congress pass two pieces of legislation that would shore up and expand voting rights as maximally as possible. These two things are not the same. That fact is obvious to any morally sentient being. But the Very Serious Debate Club makes a living pretending simple things are complex, complex things are simple, and in the process invents a “moderate position” that adds partisan heat but no political light.
Olsen adds his own twist by accepting without thinking the Republican position with respect to “election integrity measures” (those are his actual words) and by soft-balling what Georgia’s election laws actually do. Read it for yourself, but I found the biggest howler to be when he said this is one of the most expansive voting access laws in the world. Sure! If you ignore completely the fact, according to Post’s Peter Stevenson, that they expand “voter access, particularly in ways that will be visible in rural areas”! In other words, according to Stevenson’s explanation of Georgia’s laws, they are likely to make voting “disproportionately more difficult for poorer voters and voters of color.”
That Olsen has to reach for fraud to make a case that the president’s speech was “demagogic and dangerous” suggests it takes a dangerous demagogue to know a dangerous demagogue (meaning Olsen). But I don’t think he is. I think he’s just another member of the Very Serious Debate Club. He’s clever enough to see that Biden’s speech is a time for the old canard. “Making the GOP the fall guy for Trump’s despicable post-election lies—and claiming the party is anti-democratic as a result—seems to be their solution,” he said. “This may not succeed with the people they need the most: the educated suburbanites who used to vote Republican before Trump.”
So—don’t get mad at the Republicans for their immoral behavior or you might end up losing Republican voters who are not nearly as mad. That’s not just a canard. That’s a deeply cynical canard, which is why the Very Serious Debate Club, even though its members include plenty of liberals, is fundamentally in the service of the Republicans. The more Americans believe that nothing matters, that the game is rigged and that morality has nothing to do with winning, the worse things are for normal people and the common good, which is better for the Republicans. That’s why the right and patriotic response to the Very Serious Debate Club is democratic contempt.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.