The Urgency of America’s Democratic Example
Remarks as Delivered at the Denver Council on Foreign Relations.
I want to just start with a brief word about Afghanistan, although I’m saving most of that for Q&A, and I’m happy to take any Q&A you want.
But like you, I am gripped by the images from Kabul. And the consequences of Taliban control for the Afghan people — especially women and girls — weighs on my mind.
And there is going to be a time to examine the lessons that we can take — not only from the last few weeks, but from the last 20 years.
But now, I think, for the moment, our focus should be on safely evacuating — as quickly as possible — Americans and the brave Afghan partners on the ground who have supported our mission there. I can think of nothing that would honor the people that served our country in Afghanistan more than making sure that we keep the commitment that we’ve made to the interpreters and other people that are there. So, I look forward to further discussion about this during the Q & A.
But tonight, I wanted to share two observations about America and our role in the world.
First, American democracy just survived a near-death experience.
And second, I have never been more optimistic about the future of our democracy, or convinced of its importance to the world.
It has been eight months since January 6, and some have already tried to rewrite the history of that day. So let’s be clear about the brutal facts: Thousands of Americans — spurred on by a sitting president — stormed the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
They were not tourists who got carried away. As they stormed the Capitol, they assaulted law enforcement officials, they taunted them with racist slurs, they bludgeoned, tased, and even speared them with poles bearing the American flag.
And after we crammed into a secure room, the Senate saw on TV what everybody in the country and everyone in the world saw: Americans invading their own Capitol.
When I was growing up, that was not an uncommon sight in places like Tehran or Santiago or Islamabad.
But never in a million years did I think it would happen here.
But it did, and it stunned the entire planet.
While the Senate was in that embarrassing position, unable to certify the election, our adversaries transformed those images, as I knew they would, into propaganda.
China’s state-run tabloid, The Global Times, called the riots a sign of the “internal collapse” of the U.S. political system.
One Russian official proclaimed, “[I]t is clear that American democracy is limping on both feet. America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it.”
Iran’s President said: “What we saw in the US last night and today really showed first how brittle and weak western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are.”
While I watched those scenes on the TV, I thought a lot about my mom and her parents. They were Polish Jews who barely survived the Holocaust. Their entire family was killed, except for three of them, and an aunt. And, when the war was over, they came to the United States — after going to Stockholm for a year and Mexico City for a year — they were lucky enough to come here, the only country in the world where they could rebuild their shattered lives. And they did.
So, for me, even worse than the idea that our adversaries using January 6 to undermine democracy was the worry that people all over the world, situated in some sense like my mom and her parents, would lose hope in the American ideal — would lose hope in democracy and the rule of law.
And in the end, our democratic institutions held, barely, thanks to the heroism of law enforcement on January 6, but also to the patriotism of so many others in the days and weeks leading up to January 6: local election officials, including many Republicans; federal judges, some appointed by the former president; and, most important, over 158 million Americans who voted in record numbers in the middle of a plague.
Because of them, we had a peaceful transfer of power on January 20th. And most countries that have a January 6 never have a January 20th.
And all of this, in my view, raises a vital question: Which is, what are we going to do with the new lease on life our fellow Americans have given us?
And I think the answer is clear. We have to spend the rest of our lives strengthening American democracy for our children, but also for the world.
It’s not enough to return to conditions before January 6, or even before Donald Trump was our president.
Our democracy did not end up on life support in one day. It has been ailing for years.
I saw it when I was the school superintendent here in Denver, where families were working two and three jobs and couldn’t get their kids out of poverty.
I’ve seen it all over the state of Colorado over the last 11 years, where people tell me they’re working harder than ever before but can’t afford the foundations of a middle class life. They can’t afford housing, healthcare, higher education, early childhood education. They can’t save. They feel like their kids are going to live a more diminished life than the life they’re leading, and they already feel like they’re living a more diminished life than the life their parents lived.
And these are the anecdotal reflections of an economy that for the past 50 years has worked really well for the top 10 percent of Americans and hasn’t really worked for anybody else — a country with some of the worst economic mobility in the industrialized world, and a country with some of the highest childhood poverty rates in the industrialized world.
What’s Washington’s answer been? To shower the wealthiest Americans with almost $5 trillion dollars in tax cuts since 2001.
Then spend another $5 trillion fighting two 20-year wars in the Middle East.
And as Washington frittered away $10 trillion on tax cuts and wars, it neglected the American people’s needs at home.
At the same time, there was a tendency in Washington to assume that because our democracy has been around the last 240 years, that it will always be here.
To assume that our job is basically done — that we can put our feet up and scroll endlessly through social media and coast on the legacy generations of Americans have secured for us.
That false comfort has led us to make a lot of dangerous assumptions.
That the perpetual partisan warfare back in Washington doesn’t cause any real damage.
That a diet starved of local newspapers and saturated with cable news could nourish a healthy democracy.
That social media algorithms infecting our neighbors with conspiracy theories were just the price of “free speech” in the 21st century.
And most important, that our nation could prosper, in any meaningful sense, when so many American families could not.
In the end, any human society not governed by force relies on the consent of the governed. Our founders studied history, and they knew that economic insecurity breeds tyranny. They understood that democracies often collapse under the ambition of craven politicians offering false promises of prosperity to consolidate their power.
That’s why America’s example to the world has been most convincing when we stood, not only for freedom, but also for opportunity.
The world drew inspiration from us because we had the freedom to shape our future through democracy, but also the conditions to hand our children a better future through hard work.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, it has been a long time since that was true.
Meanwhile, China is not waiting for us to sort out our democracy.
Their GDP is four times what it was in 2001, and is on track to eclipse ours.
They have connected almost 90 percent of their consumers to ultra-fast internet, compared to our 25 percent.
They’ve built nearly 24,000 miles of high-speed rail, compared to our 34 miles.
They are building factories for electrical vehicles — electric vehicles as fast as the rest of the world combined.
And they’ve done it relying on tools that Stalin could only dream of to entrench their surveillance state by vacuuming up data about their citizens’ every internet search and financial transaction and facial expression.
And they are exporting that surveillance state around the world.
Today, more than 70% of the world’s nations trade more with China than the United States — virtually the opposite of 20 years ago.
That matters because when Beijing calls leaders in Africa or Asia or Latin America (not to mention the National Basketball Association) and says we need you to stay quiet about the Uighurs, or Hong Kong, or shut down an opposition party because they criticized the Chinese Government, those leaders might very well listen.
China is pursuing a China First policy — as our Intelligence Community assesses — by any means necessary, licit or illicit. The question for us is whether we’re content to be collateral damage, or whether we will offer the world a compelling theory of political and economic freedom.
As they tell us at every bilateral meeting, China’s leaders have made up their mind: they have concluded that American democracy can’t meet the challenges of the 21st century.
They are counting on Washington to keep wasting its time.
They are hoping that we’ll let our national infrastructure crumble as they transform their own.
They believe our citizens — addicted to what their leaders call the “spiritual opium” of social media and internet-fueled misinformation — will bicker themselves into a political cul-de-sac.
Or, in their wildest dreams, into a White House-directed insurrection broadcast around the world.
If you believe, as I do, that human beings deserve better than security without freedom, riches without rights, governance without dissent, and that we must always demand, for humanity’s sake, democracy, pluralism, individual rights, and the rule of law — then our work ahead is clear.
The Chinese government’s strategy is premised on American decline. One way to upend their strategy is to decide not to decline.
That calls us to strengthen our democracy, our economy, and our alliances — because the fates of all three go hand in hand.
Since January 20, we have taken some small but important steps.
We passed a recovery act to help revive the economy devastated by the pandemic.
We passed an idea I proposed in my not very well-noticed presidential campaign to provide families up to $300 a month per child, which will cut childhood poverty this year in the country by almost 50 percent, and right here in Colorado by the same.
These two measures have done more to boost incomes for the middle class and working families than anything in the last 50 years.
Even the Senate, believe it or not, has begun to work again. We have sent major, bipartisan bills to the President, including a $250 billion bill to strengthen our competitiveness with China and a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
But if we are to restore trust in our democracy at home, and earn the faith that we want others to place in it abroad, then we have to maintain this pace for years to come.
And we have done it before.
Consider everything we did between 1940 and 1960 to show the world the power of our example — of our democratic example — in the face of Nazism and fascism and Communism.
As we supported our allies abroad with the Bretton Woods Agreement, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and at home we passed the GI Bill, built the interstate highway system, and desegregated the military.
We created the biggest economy and middle class the world had ever seen, while ushering in an era of rising educational attainment, growing household incomes and the Civil Rights movement.
With each step, the power of our example grew.
And none of it was easy.
Brave Americans were met by isolationists, demagogues, and Jim Crow racists who turned fire hoses on their fellow citizens who marched for equality.
Now, as then, the fate of democracy — for the world — turns on our example. After all these years, we remain the world’s last, best hope.
How will we know if we’re succeeding?
When we have an economy that once again grows for everybody, not just the people at the very top.
When every American — every working American — can afford child care and housing and health and higher education for their family.
When the world’s best semiconductors and biotechnologies and quantum computers are made here in America.
When new small businesses flourish across the country and not just on the coasts and continue our lead in innovation
When we lead the world, as we actually do now, in creating and distributing the vaccines that we’re going to need for the next pandemic.
When the rest of America starts to vote like Colorado, with over 75 percent of people casting their ballots.
We will see it in our foreign policy as well.
When we’re leading a powerful trade bloc to counter China’s mercantilism and giving developing countries the possibility of prosperity that does not depend on One Belt, One Road.
When we are working with free nations to set global tech standards to steer fields like artificial intelligence away from humanity’s darker impulses for social control.
When our partners look to the United States, not as the least worst option in the world — but as a true ally that leads with clarity on urgent challenges like trade and climate change and cybersecurity.
Nothing about this will be any harder than anything Americans before us have already faced. And we aren’t even close to meeting the standard that they set.
I can assure you, that the standard is not watching four hours of cable news each night, or lighting up the comment section on Twitter.
The standard is John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, who literally took a billy club to his skull to help America see the gap between what we were, and what we could become.
When it starts to feel even a-tenth as hard as what he faced, we’ll know we’re getting close. Until then, we have a lot more to do.
I started this speech with my grandparents, so let me end there as well.
My grandparents loved this country — not because it was perfect. Far from it. They loved that America was always trying to fix its imperfections, and that, as new immigrants, they could be part of that.
There aren’t many societies in history where that’s been true. Because if you look back, the time in which humans have lived in a democracy is basically the blink of an eye.
The United States is an exceptional place to live. It is exceptional to live in a country that is governed by the rule of law and not by the whims of a tyrant or a party boss. Where there isn’t pervasive corruption through the private sector or the public sector. That is so rare in human history.
And we should receive that, not as a burden, but as the opportunity of a lifetime — one that we have been given, thanks to all of the work our American forebears, my immigrant grandparents among them, have put in over their years to get us this far.
They handed to us the opportunity to turn a thriving democracy over to the next generation of Americans — not only for our children’s sake, but for the world’s.
We have no choice but to succeed.