On January 6 in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, President Joe Biden gave the most remarkable speech of his career, commemorating the insurrection of a year ago and condemning Donald Trump's continuing claims of a stolen election. Like Lincoln's first inaugural and his Gettysburg Address, and like any number of FDR's speeches just before and during the Second World War, the speech dealt above all with a great threat to democracy and the need to preserve it. Here was Lincoln on March 4, 1861:
"Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."
Nearly three years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln restated the aim of the war: to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Throughout his first two terms Franklin Roosevelt boasted that the United States was proving that democracy could deal effectively with the Depression, and in his third inaugural in January 1941 he insisted that democracy was still the wave of the future worldwide:
"No, democracy is not dying.
"We know it because we have seen it revive—and grow.
"We know it cannot die—because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise—an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free expression of a free majority.
"We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will.
"We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life.
"We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still spreading on every continent—for it is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society."
President Biden struck a similar note:
"Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history.
"Both at home and abroad, we’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and self- — the self-seeking autocrat.
"From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered. They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world.
"And they’re betting — they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us. They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.
"I do not believe that. That is not who we are. That is not who we have ever been. And that is not who we should ever, ever be."
The rest of Biden's speech, which I urge you all to read in full, fully recognized the extent of the threat to democracy posed by the continuing popularity of Donald Trump--whose name he never mentioned--and the steps Republicans are taking to allow them to alter the results of fair and free elections. And like the speeches of FDR and Lincoln, it seemed to proclaim a readiness to take whatever steps might be necessary during the next three years to meet that threat.
Biden, however, labors under an enormous handicap compared to these two great predecessors. For reasons having very little to do with his personality or ability, his speech did not have 1/10 the impact of theirs, because of changes in the media and the nature of public opinion in the nation that he is trying to hold together.
Virtually every newspaper in the nation in 1861 and most of them in 1863, it is safe to say, printed the full text of Lincoln's inaugural and of the Gettysburg address, and their readers read them because they had little else to do with their free time, and because they, too, were focused on the secession of the South and the war the nation was fighting to try to end it. Roosevelt's 1941 inaugural was also printed in the nation's leading newspapers in full and broadcast on the radio as well. In the administration of Harry Truman the president added television to his arsenal of communication weapons, and the televised evening address became the primary means of presidential communication under Nixon. The extraordinary events of the twentieth century, both abroad and at home, gave the average citizen an sense of investment in the doings of the government, led by the chief executive, and George W. Bush took advantage of that legacy after 9/11--but he used it to set the United States on a disastrous course. Now the tradition of a generally high level of interest in the president's thoughts and actions seems to be nearly dead.
I did not see President Biden deliver his address. Major networks carried it in full, but he delivered it during the day, when most of us--even writers like myself--were working. The New York Times, to its great credit, carried it in full, and when I decided to post it on my one social media outlet I found the text on the White House web site, where I linked it above. I feel confident that a much smaller portion of the population heard or read it than in past eras of crisis. The White House has already removed the link from its main page, and our attention is now back on the COVID epidemic.
President Trump, alas, did find a way to command the nation's attention effectively: by tweeting. His outrageous tweets repeatedly became front page news and the focus of television news stories--just as social media in general have eclipsed newspapers, either in print or online, as the focus of the attention of so many millions of Americans. Information has become a commodity in the 21st century, and some kinds of information draw more viewers or listeners than others. We saw a preview of this half a century ago in the first era of television advertising, which featured sound bites and images chosen to arouse emotion, rather than encourage thought. The tweet has now replaced the speech or the monthly newsletter as the means by which Senators and Congressmen try to communicate with their constituents. For the second year in a row, and the second time since 1934, there will be no State of the Union address in January during the week after Congress reconvenes for its second full session.
Because so many millions of us spend more time with our favorite cable news network, podcasts, or social media platform than we do listening to or reading the words of any elected official, around 40% of the population really does not care what President Biden says--they are Republicans who have written him off. Nor does he command the kind of loyalty that popular Republican or Democratic presidents have among their own troops--and he has not found a way to secure it. Regular readers know that I trace the collapse of our politics to the failure of the government to unite us behind some successful foreign or domestic enterprise over the last two decades. Yet I also wonder whether effective democracy depended on an educated population which, for whatever reason, took the workings of its institutions seriously and took the time necessary to understand what they were doing--as well as a press that took the time to let them know in some detail. Those ingredients are also lacking, and democracy might not survive without them.