Opinion: Biden must connect dots to state-level threats to our democracy

With all that’s uncertain these days, one thing is for sure: Americans are worried about the state of our democracy. For Democrats, in particular, saving our democracy is a top priority for November’s presidential election.

No wonder President Biden has made the issue a focal point of his re-election bid. Focusing 2024 on democracy has allowed the president to draw a stark contrast between Donald Trump and himself. Highlighting the former president’s role in Jan. 6 has helped him prove that point.

Gevin Reynolds, right, and David Pepper, left.

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

While the messaging so far has proven to be effective, it has been rather narrowly focused on national-level threats on our democracy, and Trump in particular. This while extremist Republicans at the state-level have been hacking away at our democracy over the past decade – while in many cases running unopposed cycle after cycle. Their tools? Gerrymandering, voter suppression, book bans and attacks on election officials, to name a few.

We – one of us an expert on state-level democracy issues, the other a former White House speechwriter – call on President Biden to broaden the aperture of his usual pro-democracy message in his State of the Union address Thursday night and paint the full 50-state picture of the battle for democracy.

What would this look like? To bring democracy down a level in our federalist system, President Biden should remind Americans what’s been going on since his last State of the Union speech.

Throughout 2023, Republican state lawmakers across the country enacted 80 new restrictions on abortion care, passed 17 new restrictive voting laws, and attempted to censor around 4,000 books. And who can forget the Tennessee Three, who were expelled by their Republican colleagues in the State House for protesting gun violence?

Right here in Georgia over the last few years, Senate Bill 202 made it harder for people to vote, House Bill 481 made it impossible for women to get abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected and Republicans declared war on diversity, equity and inclusion.

President Biden should connect the dots between these state-level attacks and the ones we are witnessing at the national level. For example, restrictive state voting laws favor Republicans and can help more extremists get elected to the Congress. Once there, those lawmakers can supply votes to overturn a fair election or pass a nationwide abortion ban.

While the prospect of another Jan. 6 might feel far-fetched to some, and court battles may sound like insider baseball, restrictions on voting, abortion, and books are being proposed and enacted all across the country today. By bringing democracy down a level, President Biden can engage Americans in all 50 states, make them feel seen, and let them know that they too have a role to play in saving our democracy. We are all on the front lines.

Second, this strategy will also allow the President to draw an even starker contrast between Democrats and Republicans, traditionally an important goal of the State of the Union. By pointing to these antidemocratic efforts happening all across the country, the nationwide MAGA Republican playbook becomes clear.

So, too, do the catastrophic consequences of that playbook: women nearly bleeding out because of restrictions on reproductive healthcare, public school teachers fired for reading books to their students, election workers threatened for doing their jobs.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been fighting zealously against these efforts and have succeeded in expanding voting rights and reproductive freedom in a number of states. President Biden can use those examples to prove that his party is focused on strengthening our democracy and protecting freedom, while Donald Trump’s remains hellbent on destroying both.

Third and finally, this approach would at the same time remind Americans that the threats to our democracy go far beyond the presidential and congressional races that will be decided this November. The present attacks have proceeded unabated throughout the entirety of President Biden’s time in office – just as Jim Crow continued to run rampant even as FDR implemented his New Deal, and voter suppression increased in intensity throughout Barack Obama’s two terms.

Our federalist system restricts the president’s capacity to counter state-level malfeasance. That is why, President Biden must remind the American people that it is they who have the power to fight back. How? By participating in and voting for democracy up and down the ballot.

The fact of the matter is that every campaign in this country will be a theater in this war over our democracy. Thursday night will be President Biden’s opportunity to open voters’ eyes to the fact that many of Donald Trump’s detestable and antidemocratic policies are being pushed by extremists at the state level.

President Biden will rightfully declare on Thursday night that the state of our union is strong. But what he must emphasize is that the state of democracy in our union is only as strong as it is in the states where democracy is weakest.

David Pepper is the author of Laboratories of Autocracy (2021) and Saving Democracy: A User’s Manual (2023). Follow him on X at @DavidPepper. Gevin Reynolds is a contributor to The Root and a former speechwriter to Vice President Kamala Harris. Follow him on X at @GevinReynolds.