The Duck of Minerva

Phill Scott demonstrates what’s wrong with Biden’s Democracy Summit

13 December 2021

Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” was held last week. This summit meant to bring together the world’s democracies, strengthening them and pro-democratic global norms. The hope is that this would reverse the growing trend of authoritarianism around the world.

Some were hopeful. In his opening address, President Biden called on the “global community for democracy” to “stand up for the values that unite us.” Some agree this gathering may be beneficial. Max Bergman of the Center for American Progress argues the United States should be gathering democracies, even if the “what next” aspect of the meeting is unclear. Likewise, while one may question the use of a democracy summit when democracy seems to be falling apart everywhere, that actually demonstrates the Summit’s importance.

Others were skeptical. The summit included many less-than-democratic states, which seems to undermine the point of a rally for democracy. Likewise, experts like the Carnegie Endowment’s Steven Feldstein worry the “worst-case scenario” is that this is “another gathering where countries talk about democracy but not much happens.”

I think the Summit was a good idea, even if there are issues with who is included, and even though I don’t expect much to come of it. As I’ve argued here, multilateral engagement is good, even if it includes states with serious human rights issues. Similarly, I’ve been frustrated by the Biden Administration’s seeming lack of appreciation for the powerful foreign policy tool of diplomacy.

That being said, there is an issue with this summit that is demonstrated in a surprising manner: the inclusion of the Republican governor of Vermont, who gave a speech on civility.

A primer on Vermont politics

The broader political world may not know much about Phil Scott besides being shocked that a Republican is the Governor of Vermont. Phil Scott was elected in 2016, and has been easily re-elected twice. This may seem strange from the state that gave America Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy (and Howard Dean). But it does make sense.

But just as I wish Scott would engage better with his critics, I wish the Summit for Democracy had granted opportunities for real expression of democratic values.

First, Phil Scott is what some may call a “moderate” Republican. He is definitely a Republican, but has tried to craft policies that are acceptable to both sides of the political divide. He is also a generally agreeable guy, which has led to less polarization than in states with more firebrand-y Republican governors. He’s governed well (even if I don’t agree with everything he’s done), and handled the outbreak of Covid-19 better than many other governors; especially better than most Republican governors.

Second, Vermont is not as liberal as everyone thinks. Bernie Sanders was initially elected to the House because of conservative anger over the incumbent Republican congressman’s moderate stance on guns. He’s been in office since (moving to the Senate after Republican turned Democrat Jim Jeffords retired) but remember he was criticized in the 2016 primary over his support for gun rights. The point of all this is that even the career of the Senate’s most progressive member demonstrates the political diversity and nuances of Vermont.

Phil Scott and his critics

Alright, so it’s not that weird that Vermont has a Republican governor, especially considering he is not an ideologue. So what’s the problem?

The problem relates to his handling of the Covid pandemic in recent months. Like most governors, Scott loosened restrictions as numbers went down and vaccinations took off. He’s resisted reinstating them with the current Delta wave, however. I honestly think there are valid public health debates about the proper approach here. But that’s kind of the issue.

Scott has faced increasing criticism from Vermont Democrats for not doing enough (even as he faces continued attacks from conservatives for doing too much). So he’s gotten frustrated, and I understand that. But this has manifested itself in increasingly dismissive and testy responses to criticism.

Let Pakistan participate, sure. But let critics of its military, or religious minorities discriminated against by official and unofficial policy, challenge the Pakistani government.

According to reporting from VTDigger (one of the best independent news outlets in the country), Scott has claimed “critics and the media” are “sowing division” through their calls for a mask mandate. He suggested Democrats who want an indoor mask mandate would “cancel Christmas.” And his staff has gone further. His chief of staff has launched numerous attacks against public health experts questioning the governor’s approach. I was even the target of one of his comms people when I expressed frustration that it seemed like the Governor was making it easier for businesses than families (I no longer have the tweet).

Overall, I think he’s done a good job as a governor. I have enough disagreements with him and his party to prevent me from voting for him, but I respect him. Yet, his dismissive attitude towards criticism–and the attacks by his staff–are worrisome, especially for someone who prides himself on being a civil governor in a state that expects to be able to provide input into how we’re governed.

What this means for the Summit for Democracy

I can see why the Biden Administration included Scott. He’s a member of the opposition governing a liberal state, so he can discuss the importance of working with your critics. But as one among many of his constituents who feels our criticisms are ignored by Scott, it was a bit frustrating.

When Scott said citizens and politicians need to understand the views of those they disagree with, most outsiders see a stirring call for civility. Those who’ve engaged (or tried to engage) with Scott’s administration hear echoes of the way he scolds his critics. While Biden staffers likely saw the invitation to Scott as a way to burnish Biden’s bipartisan credentials, those of us upset with Scott’s policies feel as if the leader of the country is ignoring our concerns.

I don’t have a problem with someone from the opposing party being included in this event and, again, I think Scott has done a pretty good job. But just as I wish he would engage better with his critics, I wish the Summit for Democracy had granted opportunities for real expression of democratic values. Couldn’t someone have responded to Scott’s speech, pressing him for how he would act on these idealistic claims through his governing?

This extends to other countries invited. Let Pakistan participate, sure. But let critics of its military, or religious minorities discriminated against by official and unofficial policy, challenge the Pakistani government and force it to defend itself. Let Brazil participate, but include the country’s judges–whom Bolsonaro is trying to weaken–or the critics he’s tried to jail.

That is how this summit could have avoided being a lot of empty speeches.