Biden’s democracy speech and the evolution of the presidency

Written by Derek Monson

September 9, 2022

President Joe Biden recently gave a speech broadly covered in the news media about democracy. An excerpt below captures its essence:

Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.

Now, I want to be very clear — (applause) — very clear up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.

I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.

But there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.

The tone and nature of these remarks offer a chance to understand and learn from the historical evolution of the role of the president of the United States.

In the early years of the nation’s history, “it was practically unheard of for a presidential candidate to actively campaign for office.” This was because many Americans “considered [it] inappropriate [for a presidential candidate] to ask voters directly to vote for them.”

This began to change in the 19th century. Candidates for president began giving public speeches – from the front porch, in the case of William McKinley in 1896 – in an attempt to persuade voters that they were the best candidate. Candidates then began to travel around the country to give such addresses. Franklin D. Roosevelt went on a nationwide train tour campaign in 1932, visiting and giving speeches in 41 states.

The advent and popularity of television throughout the mid- to late 20th century and the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s further incentivized and rewarded presidential candidates for their active campaigning, leading to the modern campaigns we know today.

Regarding the changing role of the president of the United States over time, Sutherland Institute President Rick Larsen wrote in 2020:

The enlargement of presidential powers has changed the status of the American president. “Leader of the free world” and “party leader” are both historically recent designations that have shifted the roles of Congress, the judiciary and even states under concepts of federalism. It has contributed to a change in politics and a divisive, winner-take-all mentality. Further, the emergence of the president as “campaigner in chief” virtually eliminates the ability of a president to respond in nonpartisan terms and creates a quadrennial political split in our nation that never seems to heal.

This unofficial “campaigner in chief” role can influence both the tone and substance of the words and actions of modern U.S. presidents. Some have embraced the function of party and campaign leader more than others, but all have taken their turn using their elected position to bring attention to partisan talking points and pursue policies designed to influence election outcomes.

Why has this transformation of what it means to run for and to be president taken place? Historians and political scientists offer reasons for the evolution, but a comment from Utah Rep. John Curtis at a recent Sutherland Institute event captures a fact of American democracy as a representative system that offers insight: “Our elected officials, literally, are a reflection of us.”

Presidents and presidential candidates campaign, act and speak the way they do because voters elect them when they do so. If presidents or presidential candidates began losing votes and elections due to divisive campaign rhetoric or partisan speeches, they would stop.

This reality in turn points to one of the most hopeful civic facts of life in America: our elected representatives follow where we, the American people, lead them. Politicians do not, at a fundamental level, fill the role of a leader. Where voters want candidates to go, as expressed through their votes and donations, the candidates – even sitting presidents – follow.

During this polarized and divided time in our nation’s history, the “voters lead, politicians follow” dynamic of American democracy is an empowering fact for those who place principle above party and shared ideals above ideology. We do not have to wait for politicians to lead our community, state or nation out of division. We can (and must) do that ourselves.

We do it every time we discuss with our friends and families the American ideals of human equality or basic rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. We do it when we change how we speak about and treat others in light of those ideals – especially those with whom we disagree. We do that when we use those ideals to help us decide who we will vote for and when we persuade others to use that same lens.

In short, we lead our community, state and nation out of division when we change our thinking, language and actions to defuse division, and when we encourage others to do the same. That power remains in our hands. It begins not in the halls of government, but in our in own hearts, and then expands into our homes and communities – where it reaches a level that begins to influence and change the words and behaviors of elected officials.

That is how we will renew American democracy and bring about, in the words of the Gettysburg Address, “a new birth of freedom … that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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