Turning 'Saving Democracy' Into a Campaign Slogan Isn't Helping Save Democracy

Biden's planned address on Wednesday night will call out "those who deny the documented truth about election results and those who seek to undermine public faith in our system of government."


In what is likely a preview of President Joe Biden's planned address tonight, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday afternoon outlined how the administration sees the stakes of next week's midterms.

Biden "has been clear democracy is under assault and we cannot pretend otherwise," Jean-Pierre told reporters. Wednesday night's speech, which comes less than two months after Biden delivered a similarly themed (and poorly reviewed) address in Philadelphia, will include calling attention to "those who deny the documented truth about election results and those who seek to undermine public faith in our system of government."

Presumably, Biden will not be pointing that spotlight at himself, or at fellow Democrats like Stacey Abrams, or at his very own press secretary. Indeed, if we're putting together a list of people who have committed the sin of assaulting democracy by denying "the documented truth about election results," then Jean-Pierre's own name would show up in that dossier.

And it would be there more than once.

Biden's name would be in there too. In January, the president seemed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the midterm elections when he told reporters that "the prospect of [it] being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get" the Democrats' election reform bill passed. The White House later clarified that Biden was "absolutely not predicting that the 2022 elections would be illegitimate," even though that's plainly what he was saying.

That bill, by the way, never passed. Does that mean Biden believes next week's election will be illegitimate? Jean-Pierre was asked exactly that question near the end of Wednesday's briefing, and she dismissed it quickly. "Of course" the election will be legitimate, she said.

Of course, Biden was only talking that way because he was trying to get a bill passed. That's the unspoken truth of the January incident.

The unspoken truth of Biden's speech tonight will likely be even more partisan (if recent history is a guide). That's unfortunate, because there does seem to be a very real anti-democratic sentiment—wrapped heavily in conspiracy theorizing and soaked deeply in a nihilistic stew of too-online right-wing politics—that is sweeping one of America's two major parties. But by turning the serious talk of protecting democracy into a campaign speech, Biden is only hurting the cause he seeks to promote.

Let's be very clear about one thing. When it comes to undermining the legitimacy of recent elections, there should be no debate about the fact that Republicans have done more of the damage. And it's not particularly close—thanks in large part to January 6, 2021, but also due to the "birther" conspiracies and several cycles of right-wing fears about voter fraud that have never materialized into anything substantive. I don't need to run through all the specifics—if you've been keeping score at home, you're well aware that the Democrats are far behind in this ugly little game.

But here's the catch. If questioning the legitimacy of elections is as dangerous to the future of American democracy as Biden and Jean-Pierre claim, then there is no excuse for ever questioning the legitimacy of elections. None.

It's not enough to be less bad than the other guy. Yes, there's a difference between tweeting about stolen elections and storming the Capitol to reverse the outcome of one—but Biden isn't condemning only those who did the latter. He's condemning all of it—but only when it's politically convenient.

Of course, in our grotesque zero-sum politics, being less bad than the other guy is all that matters to the politicians, staffers, and voters who can't see past the next election.