President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris implored Congress to pass voting rights legislation during a visit to Atlanta on Tuesday. The Democrats said they support changes to the Senate filibuster rules if Republicans continue to block the measures from debate. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
By Paul Koenig
As the one year anniversary of the Capitol rioters’ attempted insurrection passed on Jan. 6, I was reminded of just how fragile our democracy is. I was also reminded of the prominent role that members of our Commonwealth played in the events that unfolded.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, worked with the Trump administration to appoint a new attorney general after William Barr determined that that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, bused constituents to the “Stop the Steal” rally by tapping his campaign coffers. Pennsylvania, the home of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, is now also home to the second-highest rate of arrests for participation in the Jan. 6 riots. Pennsylvania’s role in last year’s attempted insurrection speaks to the fact that constitutional democracy is no longer a given in America and in our Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party—at both the national and state levels—does not seem willing or able to stem the tide of anti-democratic forces in America today.
After all, most of these sentiments are emanating from its own far-right factions. This is especially sad since it was the Republican Party of the 1860s led by the likes of President Abraham Lincoln and Pennsylvania’s own Thaddeus Stevens that saved the union. Today, though, the Democratic Party is best positioned and most eager to safeguard and foster democracy anew in the United States of America.
Unfortunately, as the present state of democracy in America suggests, the Democratic Party is failing to do so.
Since President Joe Biden and the Democrats gained control of the Executive and Legislative branches, the question still remains: Are the Democrats capable of being the Republicans of the 1860s?
Republicans today are certainly determined to make winning their number one priority (regardless of the anti-democratic means/outcomes). Can the Democratic Party combat this by making democracy the central tenet of their party platform? As of now, they have not.
The Biden administration’s legislative agenda has possessed a liberal-bent marked by extensive spending bills, which suggests that the Democrats are still seeking to conduct business as usual. This should not and cannot be the case. Referencing a comment made by U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., stated during a floor speech that “Nobody elected Joe Biden to be FDR.”
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., responded to McCarthy on the floor of the House declaring, “I did!” I can confidently say that the majority of Americans did not (as reflected by Biden’s recent and dismal approval ratings). Instead, I would argue that the majority of Americans elected Biden to be Abraham Lincoln. They elected him to restore order and faith in American democracy.
They elected him to truly make America great again by making America democratic again and by uniting and fortifying our disparate Union.
So the question then becomes: How can Democrats be like the Republicans of old?
Using history as our guide, the answer is apparent: leading through compromise and putting principles over policies. During the Republican Party nominating convention of 1860, Abraham Lincoln did not receive the Republican nomination until the third round of voting. William Seward actually received more votes than Lincoln during the first round, but not enough to secure the nomination.
Unfortunately for Seward, he suffered from “electability” problems as he was too progressive on matters of slavery and race relations at that time: “As governor of New York he had not only opposed slavery, but also signed laws advancing the rights of free black residents of the state, radical moves that much of the party thought went too far for the swing states of the Midwest.”
For this reason, Abraham Lincoln—the seemingly moderate choice—arose as the party’s best option to gain control of the White House. As president, Lincoln continuously made choices that put the Union first and foremost, sometimes neglecting the cause of absolute abolition.
Lincoln was explicitly anti-slavery, as evidenced by his 1864 letters to Albert G. Hodges: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” However, Lincoln realized that if there was ever to be an America free of slavery, there had to be an America in the first place. It is for this reason that Lincoln’s anti-slavery actions as president were both profound yet measured.
While the Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the proclamation only freed the slaves in the Confederate states at that time and specifically stipulated that Black men could join the Union Army.
In these ways, the Republicans of the 1860s understood how to compromise and were willing to put their policy priorities on hold in order to save the Union.
Just as surely as history repeats itself, the American Experiment is at risk of failing.
Far too many Republicans and far-right enthusiasts have chosen to pursue goals that mandate anti-democratic means. We have been so wrapped up in the COVID-19 pandemic, we have allowed ourselves to lose sight of the anti-democracy epidemic that has infected far too many Americans.
Biden is correct when he says that “we are in a battle for the soul of America.”
The soul of America is formed and fed by democratic principles secured through constitutional rights. President Biden and the Democratic Party must realize that if they are ever going to make legislative progress on matters such as climate change or criminal justice reform, they must first save democracy.
Only when America’s soul is restored and democracy is no longer threatened, can we return to business as usual.
Paul Koenig is a senior double major in political science and economics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa.
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