Joe Biden officially launched his reelection campaign in April with a three-minute video laying out the stakes in this election: the survival of the American experiment itself.
“The question we’re facing is whether in the years ahead, we have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer. I know what I want the answer to be, and I think you do too,” the president said, as images flashed by at subliminal speeds of him speaking to union workers on a factory floor, in the Rose Garden, and at the opening of a new Amtrak railroad tunnel in Baltimore. “This is not a time to be complacent.”
He made the case that, as in 2016, we’re in a battle for the soul of the country. On his side is a commitment to decency, honesty, respect, democracy, and freedom itself. On Donald Trump’s side there’s a die-hard embrace of hatred, lies, and repression, illustrated by tear gas clouds and armed insurgents engulfing the Capitol and a lone woman protesting the overturning of Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court. “Around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take on those bedrock freedoms … dictating what health care decisions women can make, banning books, and telling people who they can love, all while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote,” he added. Freedom is the most important and sacred thing to Americans, he said, and making sure we’re all given “a fair shot at making it” is essential to securing it.
This is how Biden has decided to run for what will almost certainly be a rematch with Trump, who, despite launching a coup attempt two and a half years ago to overthrow the republic, is the likely Republican nominee rather than a prison inmate. As someone who has advocated for an approach like Biden’s to repair our democracy since before MAGA was even a thing, I was pleased to see it receive an uncharacteristically warm reception from mainstream commentators, including the columnists E. J. Dionne and Thomas Edsall, the pollster Celinda Lake, ABC News political director Rick Klein, and the union boss Mary Kay Henry.
But Biden has set up a rhetorical foundation that can anchor more than just the near-term defense of the republic against a proto-fascist movement; he is also providing a long-term agenda that addresses the root causes of the crisis we’ve found ourselves in.
As Nicholas Lemann argued in the January/February/March issue of the Monthly, we absolutely need a new political economy capable of unwinding the untenable concentration of economic power and the staggering inequality and social and political instability that has followed from it. Lemann sketched some general principles—among them, that in a healthy democracy, economic policy isn’t left to technocratic experts, as the United States has done for the past half century, but is ultimately settled by the clash of competing interests in the political process, as was the case for most of U.S. history. I’ll take that analysis a step further. Even if the Trumpists were vanquished tomorrow, the American experiment will remain vulnerable unless we stop the descent down the laissez-faire crevasse and recommit to building an economy meant to bring shared prosperity.
I’m going to expand on that here, outlining a philosophical framework designed to further our Constitution’s stated mission: to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity.” In other words, to ensure the common good and the individual’s liberty, intergenerationally. But first it’s important to understand what went wrong and the consequences of not making a significant change of course.
The political class has been waking up to the fact that Trumpism is going to remain a force with or without Trump himself. Even after he tried to stage a coup, hoarded classified records, got indicted for business fraud, promised to pardon convicted January 6 insurrectionists, and was fined $5 million by a jury for sexually abusing a woman and lying about it, Trump remains the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Rather than distance themselves from this seditious, corrupt, and amoral man, his rivals within the party emulate him in a race toward fascism, banning books, persecuting transgender people, valorizing vigilantes, and vanishing gays and lesbians from public schools and libraries even as they purge from textbooks mention of why Rosa Parks was asked to move to the back of the bus. They do this because the Republican base wants it. Recent polls show that 68 percent of Republicans still back Trump in his confrontation with the rule of law and two-thirds would vote for him for president even if he was convicted of crimes. Among Republicans, 42 percent say a strong unelected leader is preferable to a weak elected one; 44 percent say the “true American life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it”; nearly 60 percent think the country’s changing demographics pose “a threat to white Americans and their culture and values”; more than 60 percent believe transgender people are “trying to indoctrinate children into their lifestyle”; and a majority say the U.S. stands on the brink of civil war. No wonder so many GOP aspirants are emulating the orange man.
Trump and his fellow demagogues have galvanized a populist movement not unlike that of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or prewar Vladimir Putin, one that promises to create an illiberal democracy where the aspirations of the so-called majority shall not be inhibited by concessions to the civil liberties of the “others,” be they minorities, immigrants, annoying journalists, or political opponents. The movement has elected authoritarians to represent Ohio and Missouri in the U.S. Senate, to serve as chief executives in Florida and Texas, and to hold seats for swaths of northern Georgia, central Colorado, eastern Houston, and the Florida panhandle in the U.S. House. Polls suggest that the demographic is large enough to give Trump a shot at returning to the White House. This is exactly how liberal democracies fail. They’re voted out of existence by an electorate that has lost faith in its characteristics: free and fair elections, universal suffrage, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and equal protection of citizens’ human rights, civil rights, and liberties. One party is already there, which means we remain one election away from disaster.
How could this have come to pass? Because both political parties, for a half century, essentially abandoned a large chunk of the U.S. electorate, creating an angry, impatient, and illiberal constituency that has upended the Republican Party and can still defeat Democrats and pro-democracy Republicans at the polls. Yes, there’s always been a latent authoritarian, white supremacist constituency in this country—they ruled half the republic for most of our history, after all—and Trump himself speaks and acts from their playbook. He’s a hatemonger with autocratic intentions. But the Trumpist movement is bigger than that. It has drawn in millions of people who voted for Barack Obama twice. It was sufficiently attractive to some 12 percent of Bernie Sanders’s supporters that they voted for Trump in the 2016 general election—a bloc that was larger than his margin of victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It convinced millions of Latinos who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to vote for Trump in 2020. Fourteen percent of African American men—a group presumably not beguiled by white ethnonationalism—voted for Trump in 2016, and 12 percent stuck with him in 2020.
The core of Trump’s support—indeed, that of Sanders as well—are white Americans without college degrees, people whose economic interests have been ignored by both parties for decades. An analysis of 2016 voters by the political scientist Lee Drutman showed that almost all of Trump’s general election supporters were conservative on social issues, but on the economic front they were split almost evenly between liberal and conservative tendencies. (The Obama voters who then chose Trump—about 9 million of them in 2016—were almost entirely economically liberal and socially conservative.) This was an electoral coalition of traditional, Mitt Romney–style Republicans (happy with the pro-rich economic order) and angry “populists” (very unhappy about the same), many of whom were likely identifying with the Tea Party movement before Trump came along. It doesn’t really matter if the populist voters are primarily upset about their own economic situation or a perceived loss of status—the issues are related. Take away voters who were unhappy with the 21st-century economy, and Trump wouldn’t have won the 2016 primary, let alone the presidency.
Now, for the first time in a century, we face an illiberal authoritarian movement that is politically competitive on the national stage. And unlike in the heyday of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy in the 1910s and ’20s, this movement doesn’t even pretend to be upholding the classical republican values of ancient Athens. It’s speaking out of the rhetorical script of the early Nazis, Slobodan Milošević, and contemporary Russia. That means freedom absolutely is the issue in the 2024 election and Biden is absolutely correct to be running on it. But he’s also pointing in the right direction to get us out of the danger zone.
Freedom is key to all of this. The immediate danger is clear enough: The authoritarians are going to take it away; those of us opposed to them are fighting back. Abortion is the most obvious and potent example. As soon as the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority overturned Roe, Republicans across the country went from “let the states decide” to efforts to criminalize cross-border travel and commerce and to politicize drug safety. But if abortion is the point end of the spear of freedom, the point is being driven into the body politic by the spear itself, which is made up of a lot of issues, many of them economic in nature. The challenge for Biden and the Democrats is to articulate how putting our political economy back on the right track is part and parcel of defending and advancing freedom.
Since the beginning, the American political conversation has centered on how to protect and further our liberal democratic experiment—the aspirational pursuit of a society where all individuals can be free. The problem is that we’ve never agreed on how to do that, not just as individuals but as regional cultures, with the Northeast and the Deep South having contradictory traditions that have kept them at loggerheads throughout our history.
The argument is as follows:
Is freedom ultimately about maximizing the autonomy of the individual, about personal sovereignty and a lack of restraints—especially (but not exclusively) from government? If we had less government, fewer taxes, and less regulation, is it not axiomatic that each of us would be more free?
Or is it that freedom is about building and maintaining the infrastructure and institutions of a free society, the enabling and leveling mechanisms which ensure that each person has a fair shot at achieving their potential, of being meaningfully free, regardless of the circumstances of their birth? Is it a shared endeavor, a social project, a cultivation of a republican citizenry?
I argued in my 2016 book, American Character, that these two sides of freedom—individual liberty and the common good—are both essential components of a liberal democracy, in moderation. If you stray too far toward one or the other, you wind up in tyranny. On the libertarian end, tyranny takes the oligarchic form found in late-20th-century Honduras or El Salvador, where the Five Families or the Fourteen Families (which were always capitalized) had maximized their freedom and killed anyone who wanted some themselves. In the communitarian direction, it’s the Orwellian form of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, where the keepers of the “common good” criminalized dissent and “wrong” thinking, and murdered millions in an attempt to cleanse the nation of the disloyal. Optimizing a free society for the long haul isn’t about one of these aspects of freedom conquering the other, it’s about keeping the two in equilibrium so individuals are neither tyrannized nor deprived of a decent chance at pursuing their freedom and happiness. Different cultures will choose different equilibrium points—Japan is not Australia, and vice versa—which makes things particularly difficult for the U.S., as the centuries-old regional cultures that make up our unwieldy federation don’t agree on these things.
We have regions like the Deep South and Greater Appalachia, where the common good has few friends, and others like Yankeedom—the tier of the Northeast first colonized by New Englanders and their descendants—that prize it. Then there are swing regions that fall in between, like the Quaker-founded, multicultural-from-the-outset Midlands, which cuts through what are or once were swing states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri. (I explain all of this in detail in my 2012 book, American Nations.) Midlanders are communitarian, but they’re also skeptical of top-down government intervention. Far Westerners—the Great Plains and mountain regions not colonized by Spain—are more individualistic, but the extremities of their settlement environment forced a reckoning with their interdependencies, both with each other and with the federal government and corporate masters. Getting balance in this very individualistic federation of ours has, in large part, been about getting the swing regions aboard a “soft communitarian” regional coalition.
Our democracy has gotten into trouble when we’ve tacked too far in one direction or the other. Antebellum southerners tried, in the 1850s, to force the rest of the country to protect their “liberty to enslave” and to expand it to shared federal territories; 750,000 Americans died in a war to settle the issue. The economic regime created by the Gilded Age collapsed at the end of the 1920s when an unregulated, crony capitalist system devoured itself, ending an era of yawning inequality and decreasing freedom. The crisis was such that on taking office, Franklin D. Roosevelt was urged to seize dictatorial powers to preempt a fascist or communist revolution. Instead, FDR responded with regulations and public investments in the common good—which were wildly popular—but when, in the mid-1930s, he started dabbling in central economic planning (price controls, industrial production quotas), he was severely rebuked at the polls and could well have lost power if Hitler had not started invading countries.
We’ve again reached such a point. For the four decades between 1980 and 2008, and under administrations and congressional leaders from both parties, the U.S. charged toward laissez-faire individualism—a shift in power, resources, policy, and the law toward the interests of an oligarchical class. Ronald Reagan denigrated the “tax and spend” Democrats but ran a “tax cut and spend” administration, which ran up massive deficits by cutting taxes for the wealthy in the midst of a huge military buildup. This was intended, his budget director, David Stockman, later admitted, to force huge cuts to social programs and other public investments. It was accompanied by slashing regulations and federal grants to municipalities, which forced draconian cutbacks at public schools, libraries, clinics, hospitals, and housing projects. The number of people living in poverty or experiencing homelessness grew, as did the gap between the wealthy and everyone else, and it kept getting worse from there. His successor, George H. W. Bush, tried to clean up the mess, breaking his “no new taxes” pledge to do so, and was shown the door by a frustrated electorate.
Democrats were back in the White House in 1993, but the march toward libertarian individualism continued. President Bill Clinton didn’t lead the march, and indeed pushed in the opposite direction in some ways, such as creating the AmeriCorps national service program. But on economic policy he largely marched in a libertarian direction: spearheading passage of the North American Free Trade Act; preventing meaningful regulation of those credit default swaps that nearly destroyed the world economy in 2018; and delivering the coup de grâce to what little power regulators hadn’t already stripped away from the cornerstone of New Deal financial regulation, the Glass-Steagall Act, which had forbidden (taxpayer-insured) commercial banks from engaging in speculative ventures. He twice renominated Ayn Rand’s personal friend and apprentice, Alan Greenspan, as the chair of the Federal Reserve, and largely embraced the pro-monopoly merger positions of the Reagan administration.
George W. Bush, raised in Texas’s Deep Southern–settled section, may have occasionally feinted toward the communitarian ethos of “compassionate conservatism,” but he shared the domestic policy concerns of the Deep South’s oligarchy: giving tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations; privatizing Social Security; deregulating energy markets; opening protected areas for oil exploration; appointing industry executives to run the agencies that oversee their own industries; replacing civil servants with corporate contractors; and giving away billions in taxpayer money to corporations in no-bid contracts executed without effective oversight. He scuttled efforts to crack down on offshore tax havens, slashed taxes while engaged in two deficit-funded foreign wars, and so gutted the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it was unable to adequately respond to a hurricane strike on New Orleans. He left his successor to deal with a massive budget deficit, two disastrous military occupations, and the greatest financial and economic collapse since the Great Depression.
Obama sought to bring the country to a middle ground, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the post-2008 populist vitriol or to bring the now-radicalized minority Republicans in Congress on board. Many Americans responded to his call for hope, change, and healing, but few were happy with his decision to let the financial titans off the hook for any criminal accountability, even as taxpayers often paid for their executives’ bonuses, while ordinary mortgage holders lost everything. Consistent with his balanced approach, Obama eschewed single-payer health care reform in favor of a market-driven system championed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial administration in Massachusetts; Republicans demonized him for it all the same. After losing the House, he negotiated a $4 trillion “grand bargain” with Speaker John Boehner—tax increases with entitlement cuts—only to have the Tea Party caucus reject it and instead try to force a default on the national debt. Meanwhile, the anger at the devastation and bailouts caused by crony capitalists raged across the country. It fueled the continued rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, Bernie Sanders, and, most fatefully, Donald Trump.
Demagogues don’t do well when a country is enjoying broad and growing prosperity. They do well when most people’s lives have gotten more perilous. They do well when the gap between the elite and the masses has grown so wide that members of one group seem to always fail upward, avoiding legal or financial consequences for misdeeds, while the other group’s chances of holding ground—better yet, of working up the ladder—have grown more constrained. Then millions are primed to believe outlandish conspiracy theories; to rally to a populist who champions their interests, panders to their resentments, and demonizes their enemies; to back a strongman who will set things right without regard for semantic or even constitutional niceties. Trump exploited that opportunity, and now most Republicans have followed suit.
Two and a half years into his first term, Biden has racked up enough policy successes that he and his party have a shot at resetting the country by restoring balance to the Force. From June 2022 to April 2023, per capita income in America, after inflation, rose 3.6 percent—the highest real income growth in a quarter century. (Under Trump before the pandemic, it was 2.5 percent.) Public opinion hasn’t caught up to this reality, which is not surprising—a similar lag occurred in the 1990s, when economically traumatized voters didn’t believe that positive developments would persist. Consequently, Biden’s job approval numbers on the economy remain low. If current trends continue, however, he’s likely to be in a stronger position with voters going into the November 2024 elections.
Still, to survive the coming GOP onslaught, Biden and the Democrats will need to talk about their past accomplishments and agenda for the future in terms that are persuasive to voters in the swing regions of the country. Seven years ago, in American Character, I wrote that the American way—the set of political values shared by the vast majority of Americans—is about pursuing happiness through a free and fair competition between individuals and the ideas, output, and institutions they produce. If someone becomes fantastically rich through hard work or brilliant innovation, most Americans applaud them. If they squander their opportunities by greed, sloth, or indulgence, most Americans have little sympathy. Rightly or wrongly, we Americans have great faith that when individuals are so freed, their aggregate actions will contribute to the creation and sustenance of a happy, healthy, and adaptable society, one responsive to change and inhospitable to the seeds of tyranny: ignorance, hopelessness, fear, and persecution. There are other approaches to building a happy, thriving society—witness the pre-contact Algonquians or contemporary Scandinavia—but they just aren’t our way. Those are paths we will never follow, at least not without a national breakup. Democrats, understandably concerned about being seen as “blaming the victim,” have trouble speaking plainly about the role of individual initiative and personal responsibility in our national life. But they need to learn how to do it.
Notice, though, that I said this competitive society needs to be not just free, but also fair. Indeed, we’ve learned by painful experience that these two values are linked: an unfair society quickly ceases to be a free one. Once formed, monopolistic firms will use their control of their market to (unfairly) crush competitors and their innovations. If left entirely unchecked, the winners of a Darwinian social struggle will seize control not just of a nation’s wealth but also of its government, courts, and internal security, becoming a hereditary oligarchy that (unfairly) prevents others from ever rising to challenge them. Ethnonational states are bad because they exclude those who don’t belong to a chosen tribe from fairly sharing in opportunities, rights, and benefits. Free markets and free societies are not naturally occurring developments, like a mature forest. They’re more like successful gardens, the product of sustained nourishment, attention, and, yes, protection.
It’s through democratic government that we protect our freedom, be it economic or civic. We use it to keep our external enemies at bay, of course, but also to ensure that our unending domestic competitions remain fairly played. Our system requires a government that’s strong enough to act as our collective referee, to prevent a slide into corporate or plutocratic oligarchy by stopping “cheaters” and the accretion of hereditary privilege by maintaining the conditions for free and fair competition. (That we can’t allow it to become so strong that it becomes a tyrannical force is obvious to most Americans, just as it was to the Founders, who built in many checks and balances.) The freedom-and-fairness agenda isn’t about a government handout or hand up, or a plutocracy’s resources trickling down; it’s about the government having your back as you make your way in the world (if you’re not one of the 0.1 percent at the top) or keeping your power in check (if you are). As Americans, we’re committed to defending each other’s equal moral right to pursuit happiness, participate in our politics, and not be tyrannized, which is why government should vigorously respond to discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Biden and his party have a record of policy achievements that beautifully match this freedom-and-fairness creed. The administration, for instance, has begun reversing four decades of lax federal antitrust enforcement that has allowed corporations in a few big metro areas to monopolize much of the economy and has narrowed freedom and opportunity for entrepreneurs, employees, and smaller cities and towns in the middle of the country. The administration has blocked airline mergers that would have raised ticket prices and reduced choices for travelers, sued Google for cornering digital ad revenues and thereby killing off local news outlets that average Americans trust, and proposed a ban on “noncompete” agreements that rob employees of the ability to negotiate higher wages by seeking jobs at rival firms. At times, the president has discussed his antitrust actions in eloquent freedom-and-fairness language. “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism,” he said in his 2023 State of the Union address. “It is exploitation.”
Biden and the Democrats have other big achievements to brag about, but so far they haven’t consistently done so in freedom-and-fairness terms. The infrastructure bill—passed with some Republican support—is a big communitarian investment package that maintains and expands the bridges, roads, tunnels, ports, and rails that allow Americans to freely participate in economic and social opportunities regardless of where they live, and keeps clean water and power running to their homes and communities. The Inflation Reduction Act made nearly $400 billion in clean energy investments, giving hundreds of millions of Americans and their decedents potential freedom from dependence on unreliable petroleum markets controlled by despotic regimes in Russia and the Middle East—and also quicker access to that ultimate expression of American freedom, latest-technology cars, this time low-maintenance, fast-accelerating electric ones. The legislation also made the wealthy and corporations begin to pay closer to their fair share through new increased corporate minimum taxes, a new 1 percent tax on stock buybacks, and better enforcement and collection by the IRS.
Americans are practical-minded people. They may want government to have a limited scope of action, but they also want it to function well in those areas where it operates. And the vast majority of them want to live in a free and fair society. Biden’s pledge to ensure that Americans have freedom and a fair shot at succeeding is one that can speak not just to Democrats but also to the aspirations of an entire people.
Most Americans also don’t want to live in the authoritarian, fascistic world Trump and his emulators are trying to create. They don’t hate their neighbors or fear trans kids or want LGBTQ people erased from schoolbooks, Target stores, and legislatures. They don’t want their government overturning democratic elections or pardoning convicted seditionists or kidnapping toddlers from migrant parents at our borders or deploying soldiers to crush those who demonstrate against it. They want women to have control of their bodies and their children to be free to go to school without the need for Kevlar, armed guards, and terrifying safety drills. They don’t think America should be an ethno-state of white Christians. But they need leaders to make stark the alternatives and to rally them to the cause: to build an America that is truly great because it’s a place where we all fight for each other’s inborn and equal entitlement to freedom. Biden has taken the first steps. We’d best not turn back.