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Why it's sensible to see voting rights as a national security issue

The Biden White House sees voting rights as a national security issue. That may seem like a stretch. It's not.


At face value, voting rights in the United States would appear to be an entirely domestic issue. But at a press briefing yesterday, a top member of President Biden's team made a compelling case for a broader perspective.

The day after the apparent demise of the Democrats' For the People Act, a sweeping democracy-reform package, a reporter asked White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan whether voting rights is a national security issue. He replied:

"I would say the basic notion of democratic reform and voting rights in the United States is a national security issue. We are in a competition of models with autocracies, and we are trying to show the world that American democracy and democracy writ large can work, can effectively deliver the will of the people. And to the extent that we are not updating, refurbishing, revamping our own democratic processes and procedures to meet the needs of the modern moment, then we are not going to be as successful in making that case to the rest of the world — to China, to Russia, or to anyone else. And so there is a national security dimension to this today."

It's not uncommon in U.S. politics to have competing cross-currents playing out simultaneously. On voting rights, for example, there are all kinds of detailed developments unfolding regarding various legislative proposals, negotiations, legal disputes, and day-to-day arguments at the state and federal levels.

But there are trees and there are forests -- and what Jake Sullivan was describing yesterday was politics at a macro scale. There are competing models of government on display throughout the world, and in this White House, it's a priority to make clear to international audiences that a liberal democracy is the superior governing method. That, in turn, means voting rights and the vitality of our political system has a direct effect on the United States' global influence and stature.

And that necessarily means that the more our democracy withers, the more it strengthens anti-democratic forces around the world.

His boss is constantly thinking along the same lines. Indeed, President Biden wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post ahead of his first trip abroad as president, describing the overseas excursion as an opportunity to demonstrate "the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age."

This is a defining question of our time: Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world? Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries? I believe the answer is yes. And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it.

If this idea seems at all familiar, it's not your imagination. As Rachel noted on the show last night, it's been a point of near-preoccupation for Biden all year, with the Democrat making the case that it's become quite necessary for the United States to not only function effectively to serve the populace, but also to prove to the world that democracy itself has value.

Authoritarian governments would have the world believe that democracies are slow, messy, and dysfunctional, and Biden is desperate to prove them wrong.

He could probably use some additional allies on this front from his own country, where one of the nation's major parties appears a bit too eager to abandon democracy altogether, and where one of the senators from his own party is standing in the way of voting rights legislation -- not because it's substantively flawed, but because the party that's increasingly hostile toward democracy doesn't like it.

Perhaps they could pause to consider the global "competition of models" from a more panoramic perspective?