Independence day and the crisis of American democracy

BOSTON – This Independence Day, it felt like America is not so much celebrating as soberly pondering the future of our democracy.

Amid all the barbecues, parades and fireworks that traditionally mark the 4th of July, there is a political crisis brewing. It has descended upon America less than two months before the party conventions and just four months before Americans go to the polls in one of the most fateful presidential elections in our modern history.

As I write this, President Joe Biden is shifting from the traditional 4th of July festivities at the White House to last-minute preparation for a prime-time television interview with ABC News that may define whether or not he will stay in the race for the presidency. After his disastrous performance in the first debate against Donald Trump, many of Biden’s allies in the Democratic party have turned against him and are calling him to step aside and make way for a new generation of leadership. At the White House, Biden defiantly told those gathered for a holiday gathering, “I’m not going anywhere!”

But behind the scenes, a chorus of dissent is rising within the Democratic Party establishment and it is not at all clear if Biden will survive. Polls show a growing number of voters feel he is just too old at 82 years of age, and that increasingly visible signs of cognitive failure cannot be overlooked.

A New York Times/Siena College poll, released July 3, had Biden down six points against Donald Trump among likely voters — a three-point drop since his poor debate performance.

The main reason cited is Biden’s age. In the Times poll, the share of voters who say Biden is “too old to be an effective president” rose to 74 percent from 69 percent and included a majority of Democrats. Four years ago, just 36 percent of voters said Biden was too old.

Beyond the immediate political crisis for Biden, there is a wider, looming threat to American democracy presented by Trump’s candidacy. At last week’s presidential debate, it is true that Biden stumbled and appeared frail and at times confused. But it is also true that Trump peddled many falsehoods that went uncorrected and, most importantly, failed to answer the question clearly when asked pointedly if he would accept the results of the election, if he loses.

In 2020, Trump did in fact refuse to accept the results of the election. Then he presented an unsubstantiated narrative of voter fraud, defied America’s proud tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, called for his supporters to gather in Washington and, as many political analysts and historians view the moment of January 6, tried to spur a coup to violently overthrow the result of the election and cling to power. No matter what your partisan leanings are, Trump poses an ominous threat to our democracy. It is a clear and present danger that the American media seems to have largely lost its focus on – or perhaps to be under-modulating – with all the nervous hand wringing over whether or not Biden should stay in the race.

President Joe Biden speaks during the presidential debate in Atlanta. (Photo by Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

This will be a challenging time for the media. How Biden’s interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos goes tonight and how the news organizations cover voter reaction to it may well determine the fate of his candidacy.

Within the wider backdrop of a crisis in democracy, there are profound questions about whether we may be witnessing an historic turning point in America’s experiment in liberal democracy which has been constantly evolving since 1776. It is important to note that there is a significant erosion of the institution of a free press and the right to free speech, which the founding fathers placed at the very top – Article 1A – of that list of articles guaranteeing the rights to “We the people” in our constitution.

In this newsletter, we are constantly monitoring the challenges of a free press in America and around the world, and as we have shared many times before: the crisis in local news has everything to do with the crisis in democracy. Last week, I wrote a column about two seismic events in the contemporary history of American journalism:  the release of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange after a plea deal with the United States and the start of the proceedings against the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent Evan Gershkovich, who was falsely accused of espionage in Russia.

They are like a double helix, two linear strands that run opposite to each other, which makeup what might be called the DNA of democracy.  Both of these stories are distinct, but they are bound together by the force of Russia. Assange allied with that dark power and its decades of perfecting the art of misinformation, disinformation and a bludgeoning of a free press. Gershkovich, on the other hand, sought to shed light on the more opaque corners of Russia through his reporting and Gershkovich has paid a heavy price for that through a wrongful detention and now a rigged court proceeding.

Please read my column on the ‘double helix’ of free speech and press freedom.

Amid the political crisis unfolding on this 4th of July holiday weekend, we are naive not to think that Russia, China and other adversaries will see this moment as a time of vulnerability. Those of us who believe in press freedom must be vigilant and on guard for misinformation and disinformation and stay alert to the ways in which social media – and the powerful algorithms that drive the major platforms – will be working against the better instincts of our liberal democracy and our hope for a free press to shape the foundation of democracy.