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Biden’s Summit for Democracy: Time to get our own house in order first

-By Harvey Dzodin

(Harvey Dzodin was a political appointee in the Carter Administration and was a Vice President of the ABC  TV Network.)

President Joe Biden’s so-called Summit for Democracy is scheduled for December 9 and 10 to be held virtually, with an in-person follow up a year later but sadly it’s not only flawed, but premature and not ready for prime time, even as envisioned by Biden and team during the presidential campaign where it was first announced.

The top, and most urgent priority is first shoring up the very foundations and guardrails of the American system that were almost broken during the Trump years and continue to be weakened by him and his ilk. Even now, there is no guarantee that could prevent Trump, or a Trump with a brain like Mike Pompeo, from sitting in the White House little more than a thousand days from now.

Instead of demonizing China, US policymakers should actually be expending some positive energy looking at China’s system for inspiration because China, admittedly with a different form of democracy, is in some respects superior to the US based on objective data. Let’s face it, when it comes to governance models, one size doesn’t fit all because the model has to be tailored to each country’s unique combination of history, values and experiences. No country should be aggressively pushing its own governance model on to others ,at least until they’ve perfected their system as much as humanly possible.

I worked in the Congress and for Jimmy Carter and I can tell you that In US presidential campaigns, talk is cheap: too much “blah, blah, blah” designed to win votes on Election Day, but mostly consigned to the trash heap of history the day after it. Sometimes, good-faith attempts are made, but success is the exception rather than the rule, especially when the country is as hopelessly divided as the US is today.

I’ve met Biden. He’s a good and decent man, who has suffered profound personal tragedies . He promised to restore civility to government after Trump and his fellow-grifters were given the sack, and in that he has succeeded. In Biden’s well-intentioned Summit for Democracy, however, he has discarded his own playbook and the process is fatally flawed because it’s built on the false myth of American Exceptionalism and the arrogance of innate American superiority. Between the rhetoric and the reality is a divide as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean.

There’s no question in my mind that Biden is a man of faith. To go through all the life and death personal challenges that he has endured, and to still be an optimist is proof. But his faith in American Exceptionalism, that American is chosen by God to lead other nations and that Washington is the shining city on the hill, is just as Biden might say “a bunch of malarkey”.

During the campaign, Biden put forward a long laundry list of laudable goals to shore up the American system. A few of the low-hanging fruits have been picked like the resumption of daily White House press briefings. To some degree, others are tied up in Biden’s physical and human infrastructures bills, which currently face an uncertain future. Others like voting rights and campaign finance reforms are not very likely. But achieving the overall stated goals of reinforcing American democracy and restoring US’ s moral leadership are a distant dream. As Biden said that “the United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example.” This lofty unfulfilled goal was, in fact, a stated prerequisite prior to convening the Summit for Democracy.

As Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s National Security Advisor, said during the campaign: “Any effective strategy for American engagement in the world has to start with making those deep investments in the strength of our own democracy and democratic institutions.” This thought was later echoed and amplified upon by a former Clinton aide, Dr. James Goldgeier, who wrote that the Summit should be inwardly-focused on domestic injustice and inequality.

This is absolutely so because the US system is deeply-flawed and lacks the moral authority to hold itself up as the model for others, as it will no doubt do at the upcoming summit.

The Summit is expected to focus on three broad themes: defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. The US talks a good game about fighting this trio of evils. But actions speak louder than words so that’s what should be carefully dissected. The US is deficient in all three.

The definition  of authoritarianism sounds to me exactly like a description of Trump himself: “showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others; domineering or dictatorial”. It’s also a perfect description for the party Trump now bends to his will, the once principled and admired Republicans They know that since the demographics of voters are moving in favor of the Democrats that to survive they must ensure that some people are more equal than others. They do this through voter suppression, gerrymandering and other tricks to remain in power.

It’s not to say that in an earlier era Democrats didn’t do exactly the same thing. In both cases the goal was white supremacy at the expense of Blacks and Native Americans. America, it seems, has racism genetically encoded into its very DNA, predating the birth of the country.

The American governance system is also rife with corruption. It’s not just payoffs and kickbacks with wads of cash conveyed in paper bags and onion sacks to public officials; that’s small potatoes. I’m talking legal corruption favoring the .001% who control the country for their own benefit using an army of high priced lawyers and former public officials to write laws favoring themselves at the expense of the masses. It’s the reason the top 10% of US households hold 70% of US wealth and why the bottom 50% of households account for a mere 2%. And it’s also the reason that US billionaires’ wealth skyrocketed by 70% or $2.1 trillion during the height of the pandemic.

Biden has always been an outspoken champion of human rights but he seems blind to the many inequities, even in the adjacent minority neighborhoods surrounding Capitol Hill, and even those not far from the White House. As a longtime lawyer Biden surely know the ancient legal doctrine of clean hands. The popular equivalent is that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones or as it says in the Bible, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Until such time as the US gets its own human rights house in order, it must refrain from criticizing others.

Due to racism and white supremacy, the basic human rights of minorities in America have been wanting. Choose any important measure and it’s primarily the Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics who get the short end of the stick. They suffer proportionally more Covid-19 deaths, higher rates of incarceration, unemployment, gun deaths and crime. They get less education, live shorter lives and endure more hardships. All of these are inseparable from basic human rights.

And consider the invitees to the Summit for Democracy, a cherry-picked bunch chosen by cold political calculations and not by any objective standards. Many of the attendees are DINOs, Democracies In Name Only.  One DINO invitee is no democracy at all but falsely includes the word as part of its name. Still other DINOs have some elements of democracy, but hardly qualify. Others, including the US, have recently become less democratic.

And isn’t the Summit primarily for leaders of countries? By any objective standard, invitee Taiwan is nt a country. As reaffirmed in the recent virtual bilateral summit between Biden and  Chinese PresidentXi Jinping, Biden reconfirmed the US long-standing commitment to the one China policy. This was despite the fact that starting with Trump and continuing apace with Biden, there have been numerous violations of the letter and spirit of the agreed upon policies of the last half-century. Again, actions speak louder than words.

And, as an aside, I don’t honestly know how Biden can ask Xi for the favor of releasing petroleum resources from China’s strategic reserves to ease inflation, in part caused by the very tariffs imposed by Trump and continued by Biden. And I can’t fathom if the US really wanted the oil, that days later Biden could poke a stick in China’s eye by inviting Taiwan to his Summit and still expect Chinese cooperation.This definitely does not compute!

The word “democracy” comes from ancient Greece and simply put means that the people rule. It describes a government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation.

We Americans been conditioned to hate communism for more than a century. I think it’s part of the reason for the current tensions with China. But as someone who’s very familiar with both countries, knowing that no one model fits all countries, I try to look at comparisons objectively and dispassionately. Anyone who does can see that the China model is producing superior results and that the system is continually fine-tuning itself, using tools like the very successful five-year plans and their related model of whole process democracy which includes a national legislature, the National People’s Congress, and an associated advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In addition, input from all stakeholders is vigorously solicited.

Per-capita income statistics tell the story. In 1953 at the start of China’s first five year plan, per-capita income was about $50, now it’s $10,500, an increase of 210 times. It’s still rising and projected to be multiples of that by 2049. By comparison, US per-capita income was relatively flat in the last 40 years.

It should come as no surprise then that in public opinion polls in China, even one vast multi-year study conducted by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Chinese people’s ratings of the effectiveness of their government, already high ,rose, even during Covid. By contrast in the US, people who lived through Covid remain hopelessly split and divided.

There are different governing models that meet the definition of democracy. China’s is one of them. Compared to a number of the 110 country-invitees plus Taiwan, China’s model not only fits the definition, but serves its people better. It would have been far better if the US had gotten its own house in order before trying to push its own flawed model on others.

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