Resolute Square

A Plan to Pull America Back from the Abyss

Robert McElvaine writes, "The American Experiment in self-government, freedom, equality, and the rule of law—is facing its greatest threat since the Enslavers’ Rebellion (aka Civil War) sixteen decades, or as Lincoln would put it, eight score years, ago." Can we avert disaster? McElvaine thinks that we can.
Published:July 9, 2024

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By Robert S. McElvaine

The United States of America—the American Experiment in self-government, freedom, equality, and the rule of law—is facing its greatest threat since the Enslavers’ Rebellion (aka Civil War) sixteen decades, or as Lincoln would put it, eight score years, ago.

As I wrote in my Substack on July 2, the stakes in the 2024 Election are higher than they have ever been in American history. This became all the more obvious after the six Injustices of the Supreme Court came out for monarchy only three days short of the 248th anniversary of the Declaration that it is self-evident that “all men are created equal”[We—at least those of us who are not MAGA followers—now take “all men” to mean “all humans.”. The stakes are even greater than in 1864 when the survival of the Union was at stake. Then, a Lincoln defeat and a Confederate victory would have lost the southern states and left enslavement intact there – a horrible result – but the United States would have continued as a smaller democratic republic that still accepted that no one is above the law. That may well not be the case if the Democrats do not win this year. A Trump victory might write “THE END” on the drama titled The American Experiment.

To apply Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg 161 years ago, “We are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation [conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal], or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

We are this year and indeed this week, “met on a great battlefield of that war.” Throughout the war, to put down the rebellion launched to continue slavery, President Lincoln shuffled generals, trying to find the one best able to achieve the essential victory by the United States against the insurrection.

This week, the Democratic Party—and the forces for democracy that includes many outside the party—are confronting a question like that Lincoln faced: Which person leading the troops of freedom and democracy is most likely to achieve victory for the United States against the powerful forces determined to destroy our nation? It is a genuine dilemma in that either road taken may lead to disaster.

We are at a decisive moment within a larger defining moment for the future of America, democracy, and freedom.

The Democratic Party seems poised to make a terrible mistake—one that could be fatal to our nation. The incorrect operative assumption is that if it is concluded that President Biden is likely to lose the election, there are only two alternatives: Ask Biden to “step aside” and replace him with Vice President Kamala Harris or ask the President to “step aside” and have an open convention.

Either could be catastrophic.

There is a lemons-into-lemonade alternative, and it should be seriously considered. It requires getting the President to buy into a Plan to Pull America Back from the Abyss.
I have put it together with ideas of my own combined with suggestions that have been put forward by others, notably Jonathan Alter in the New York Times on June 28 and Ryan Grim on Substack on July 2 (an essay that contains some outrageously misleading statements but also offers some good ideas), over the long days since the debate on June 27. 

Who am I to present such a plan? Basically, I am just a concerned citizen, a rank-and-file Democrat, a progressive, a feminist, and a firm believer in democracy and equal rights. I am also a historian who has written widely about American politics and someone who has participated in Democratic politics from the edges, including contributing to the speeches of three Democratic presidential nominees and a few of Bill Clinton’s presidential speeches. Like Amerigo Bonasera, “I believe in America.” With all our horrible flaws, the vision presented in 1776 remains a goal very much worth maintaining and enlarging, and with many backslides, we have been moving closer to fulfilling that vision, especially since the 1960s. As I discuss in detail in my latest book, The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year “The Sixties” Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn, the forces behind Donald Trump are determined to overturn all that and “Take America Back” to a time before the nation had made much progress towards fulfilling its stated values.
One Voter’s Plan to Pull America Back from the Abyss

1. Everyone needs to get on the same page, and we need to do it soon. Until a decision is made, no additional Democrats should make public statements calling on the President to withdraw. That decision should be made by the end of this week.
2. The only considerations in how the Democrats go forward must be defeating Trump and saving American democracy and freedom.
3. The Election must be a referendum on Trump and the “Republican” intention to write “The End” to the story of the American Republic. It is all there in Trump’s statements and Project 2025. Trump and the existential threat to America, not Biden, must be the focus. The message ought to emphasize that departing democracy would be like leaving the security area of an airport. If we go through that exit door, there is no re-entry.
4. We cannot count on the media to act responsibly. They are focusing entirely on Biden and his “fitness” to be president when they all know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is Trump who is totally unfit to be president and is a mortal threat to the American Republic.
For more than a week, the public has heard almost nothing other than that President Biden had a “horrific” debate that indicates he is not up to being president. In fact, Biden had a poor debate, but it was Trump who was horrific—“horrifying”—at the debate as he always is. He was lying outrageously. His mental unfitness was disguised at the debate because he put a verbal bump stock on the deadly weapon that is his voice and fired a hail of what Heather Cox Richardson correctly called “lies, non-sequiturs, and specious arguments.” Biden was unable to keep up with them, and most people in the media just ignored them or mentioned them in passing as they leaped on Biden.
What are we (and by we, I mean the American people) up against? A review by the Heartland Signal cited by Richardson found that in the week following the debate, “the New York Times had published 192 pieces on Biden’s debate performance and whether it disqualified him from being reelected president. How many stories even mentioned Trump’s mental fitness? Zero.
5. Another example: In an essay that puts forward some good points, Ryan Grim wrote on Substack on July 2, “The Democratic Party has spent the last who-knows-how-long lying to the country” and “Right now, they [Democrats] are a cloistered pack of liars and frauds.” He calls the Democrats “a party that is at the nadir of its credibility after its scandalous deception.” That such statements are being made about Democrats rather than MAGA Republicans is enough to make the head of a reasonable and patriotic American explode.
6. But, in a cliché I detest but is appropriate for where we are: “It is what it is.” The media is not going to suddenly develop common sense and report the crisis facing us accurately. They are not going to start calling right-wing extremists, authoritarians, fascists, and those determined to end the Constitutional Republic what they are; they will continue to refer to them as “conservatives,” making them sound mild and unthreatening.
7. Democrats have to get off defense and on offense ASAP. The decision on the way forward, with everyone uniting behind President Biden or agreeing on a plan for choosing another candidate, must be made by a date certain that must be very soon.
8. If Biden is to be replaced, the party needs to unify behind a plan that fully endorses his presidency and pledges to run proudly on his record. It is essential that President Biden buys into the plan without reservation. Everyone would agree that his presidency has been one of the greatest in American history—which is demonstrably true. He would then announce that, while he is confident in his abilities to continue the services he has so well performed for the American people, he has concluded that the public perception has become otherwise; he is a realist about that and about the fact that his capacities could decline over the course of a second four-year term. He spoke truthfully when he said he ran in 2020 because he believed that he was the only one who could beat Trump. He would not have sought reelection this year had Trump and Trumpism lost their control of the opposition party. When it became clear that the existential threat to the American way of life that Trump and those around him posed was even greater, and he believed that he might be the only one who could defeat the authoritarians, Biden decided to run again. He now sees not only that others can also defeat Trump but that some of them may be in a better position to do so.
Unlike Trump, Biden would point out he puts the nation and the American people above his own ego. Accordingly, he has decided to, as President Kennedy said in his inaugural address, pass the torch to a new generation of Americans, lower-case-d democrats, and capital-D Democrats, who are currently the only ones committed to maintaining democracy and the rule of law, safeguarding our precious and very much-threatened freedoms, upholding our Constitutional Republic, continuing to rebuild and expand the middle class to include those striving to enter it from below, make the superrich and giant corporations pay their fair share of taxes—an economy that is capitalism with checks and balances, as our political system is democracy with checks and balances—restoring and guaranteeing women’s control over their own bodies, making clear that in the United States no one, including a president, is above the law, and supporting free and democratic nations against aggression by tyrannical regimes, and so much more.
9. The passing of the torch would be done neither by simply anointing Vice President Harris nor passing over her, neither naming her nor having a totally open convention free-for-all. Rather, there would be a carefully crafted process leading to a convention with a limited number of candidates for the nomination and no predetermined outcome. The convention will be exciting, but there will be order, not disorder, competence, not chaos.
10. Before Biden makes the announcement, a plan for selecting the new nominee would be devised by a group—call it The Committee to Save America, Democracy, and Freedom—consisting of President Biden along with other leading Democrats—likely including Presidents Obama and Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Speaker Emerita Pelosi, Speaker-to-be Jeffries, Leader Schumer, and others, but not including Vice President Harris or any of the other potential candidates.
11. The rules should be simple and easily enforceable. No negative comments about the others seeking the nomination will be allowed: Only positive comments about why the potential candidate believes s/he would be the best to vanquish Trump and his authoritarian movement. Negative comments about Trump backed by solid evidence will, of course, be encouraged.
12. Just naming Kamala Harris as the new nominee would be a huge mistake. As Grim put it, “a nomination she has handed to her is a poisoned chalice.” If she is to be a strong candidate, she needs to win the nomination in an open convention, not have it handed to her without competition.
That is in no sense unfair to the Vice President. Had Biden not run, Harris would not automatically have become the party’s nominee. She would have had to prove herself in competition with others.
If she wins the nomination at the convention, Kamala Harris will be a much stronger candidate than she would be if the nomination were just passed to her.
13. Candidates will self-select, and at least one debate among them will be held prior to the convention. At this point, the most likely candidates in addition to the Vice President seem to include Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and possibly Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, or others. If there are more than four candidates, some fair means will be agreed upon in advance to narrow the field to a “Final Four” in Chicago.
It will be neither “a brokered convention” nor a chaotic free-for-all; it will be an Open-Process Convention with strict rules. “The Final Four” will speak for a set amount of time—something like 20 to 25 minutes—on the first night of the Democratic Convention, August 19.
It would be “must-see-TV.” Not “reality TV,” which is scripted and where the stakes are negligible, but actual reality in which the stakes are the highest.
14. On the second day, into evening prime time, delegate votes—likely multiple ballots—would take place as the nation watched in rapt attention.
15. The winner of the nomination, in consultation with the President, the other candidates, and other prominent voices for democracy, would choose the vice-presidential nominee. Since Trump will have picked his running mate a month before, the Democrats will have the advantage of knowing who would add the most to the ticket.
16. On Wednesday evening, Biden would be honored as what he is: one of the greatest presidents in American history. Others would detail all he has accomplished, which is what the nominee will be continuing. The President himself could either speak then or on Thursday in introducing the nominee to give her or his acceptance speech.
17. On Thursday evening, the new nominee will deliver her or his acceptance speech amidst a joyful display of party unity and purpose, pride in Joe Biden’s historic accomplishments, a unifying vision for an American future desired by a substantial majority of voters, and confident determination that the nightmare future being put forth by Trump and MAGA will be soundly defeated in November.
18. The nominee would begin the general election campaign with a big lead on the authoritarian opposition.
Potential Benefits of this Plan:

■ A much younger nominee would instantly flip the script on the “too old, feeble mind” narrative to being against Trump.

■ The issue of the nominee not having been chosen by the voters will be blunted by Biden, the person they did vote for, being the one who voluntarily withdrew, created/endorsed the method of choosing the candidate, fully supports the candidate, and the candidate will be running on Biden’s record and vision for the future.

■ With the demographic diversity of the delegates, it will be hard to argue that the candidate is not reflective of the wishes of the party’s many constituencies.

■ While the concept of a kind of reality show vibe may seem undignified, an unconventional convention—“The Final Four,” “Democrats’ Got Talent”—promises to attract far more positive attention for Democrats (and democracy). Not “The Voice,” but “The President.” Not “American Idol,” but “America’s Next President.” It would be viral on social media and get the attention of younger potential voters.

(I am not suggesting that any of these names be used by the party, but the parallels will surely be picked up by the media.)
Finally, whichever way we go, we need to give ourselves a shot of optimism. We have now seen twice in two years in France that free people still prefer freedom to authoritarianism when the rubber hits the road. Freedom and democracy do much better in elections than in polls, as has been decisively and repeatedly shown in American elections since the Dobbs decision in 2022. We also saw voters in the UK turn overwhelmingly against the economic policies the MAGA “Republicans” intend to reimpose in the United States.

Even if we proceed with President Biden, we will win. Jennifer Rubin spoke for millions when she recently said that she would vote for Biden in a coma over Trump.

Now, let’s get out there and win this one for Abraham Lincoln, whose party has been kidnapped by people who totally reject his beliefs, and for the Founders, for Thomas Paine and Abigail Adams, and for the abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, suffragists, labor unionists, immigrants from all over the world, idealists and reformers, Franklin Roosevelt, the millions who fought and in many cases died to save America from fascism, civil rights workers, feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, indigenous peoples rights champions—and, yes, Ronald Reagan—and all the others who have believed and still believe in the American Dream.
{Robert S. McElvaine is Emeritus Professor of History at Millsaps College and the author of eleven books, most recently The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year “The Sixties” Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn. He is currently at work on a new book, An Agreed-Upon Fiction: The Creation of the “Inferior” Sex – How It (Mis)Shaped History & The Present. He writes a column on Substack, Musings & Amusings of a B-List Writer. }