Biden's message: “Democracy will be on the ballot!”

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

“Today, we’re here to answer the most important of questions,” President Joe Biden said in Valley Forge on January 5. “Is democracy still America’s sacred cause? I mean it.”

There is that feeling I can get, maybe like a quiver, not something in my head, but in my whole body, when I hear words so striking, so uplifting, so clear in their articulation of truth, that I know I’ve heard greatness and grace at the same time. That’s how I felt watching the president deliver his speech last week.

I hope every American heard the president’s speech at Valley Forge. “This is not rhetorical, academic, or hypothetical,” he said. “Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”

Biden took us full circle, beginning with George Washington’s message to the Continental Army at Valley Forge in winter 1777-1778 during the American Revolutionary War. We heard Biden list former president Donald Trump’s flaws—not ordinary political differences, but flaws “that exploit fear for (his) own personal gain; from those who traffic in lies told for power and profit; from those who are driven by grievance and grift, consumed by conspiracy and victimhood; from those who seek to bury history and ban books.”

He ended by taking us back to the present:

This is the first national election since January 6th insurrection placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy — since that moment. We all know who Donald Trump is. The question we have to answer is: Who are we? That’s what’s at stake. Who are we? 


Nearly a month after the deadly EF4 tornado struck Madison County in March 2022, the county and volunteers were still cleaning up and helping affected families. To use poet Walt Whitman’s word, these Madison County, Iowa, folks were “luxuriantly” growing democracy through goodness. 

Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between people, and their beliefs – in religion, literature, colleges and schools- democracy in all public and private life. … that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil (pettiness), until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences. Indirectly, but surely, goodness, virtue, law (of the very best) follow freedom. These, to democracy, are what the keel is to the ship, or saltness to the ocean.

From Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

According to KCCI News, “The nonprofit disaster relief group GoServ Global has been helping with the clean-up. Over the past few weeks — team members say it’s been an emotional journey. Barb of GoServ Global, said, “They cry a lot, we cry a lot. I cry a lot. It’s just all part of it. Just getting to know these people. Just being able to immerse yourself in their lives and helping take on their emotions so they know they’re not here by themselves.”

Madison County illustrates democratic principles in the way volunteers, nonprofits and governments work within communities hit with disaster to organize helpers and link victims to aid.

I wonder if the kindhearted volunteers in Madison County would have been repelled had one of them told the others their work was just the right kind of democracy, like Whitman would want us to practice. Probably they wouldn’t object to Whitman, but mentioning his protege Joe Biden might set off alarms. Or would they cheer for the former president, who characterized election 2024 as “our final battle” in a recent Truth Social post?

2024 as our final battle. With you at my side, we will demolish the Deep State, we will expel the warmongers from our government, we will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the Communists, Marxists, and Fascists, we will throw off the sick political class that hates our Country, we will rout the Fake News Media, we will evict Joe Biden from the White House, and we will FINISH THE JOB ONCE AND FOR ALL! 

Donald Trump, Truth Social

Trump‘s social media post scares the bejeebers out of me. If he put those words on a card and had it laminated, he could use it as the opening prayer at every Republican rally.

That “extremist movement” has been a feature of America in our history. In an 1814 letter to Virginia planter-politician John Taylor, John Adams, the nation’s second president, warned, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Taylor was writing his book An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814) where he provided “an extremist movement” slavery’s defenders with an arsenal of high-minded abstractions to invoke if challenged about the morality of slavery.

“I’m tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn’t work. Of course, it doesn’t work. We are supposed to work it.” Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


With some serendipity, I had listened to a New York Times podcast called “The Run-Up,” which follows the 2024 presidential campaign as it unfolds. The podcast has weekly updates running until the election. Its host is Times reporter Astead W. Herndon, who records interviews of real people on-site, and puts them online with transcripts and his own commentary.

I picked up the action with the December 21, 2023, edition entitled, “How Iowa Learned to Love Trump.” This episode starts with man/woman-on-the-street interviews, recorded on the Main Street and the Iowa State Fair last August. At that time, about five months ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Trump was polling at about 42 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. State fair attendees who owned up to being Trump supporters had little to say, except they always voted Republican, and they were unfamiliar with other Republicans.

For the December 28 episode of The Run-Up, Herndon came back for the last night of the State Fair to hear recording artist Jason Aldean, whose song “Try That in a Small Town” was the song of the summer for MAGA Republicans. The reporter wanted to interview some of the 12,581 concert-goers who came to the Grandstand about the song, politics, and to gauge Trump’s popularity in Iowa.

In the song, Aldean and his co-writer list off behaviors he associates with cities—like crime and disrespecting the flag and police officers. And then he warns people of the consequences if they, quote, “try that in a small town.” He sings, “got a gun that my granddad gave me. They say, one day, they’re going to round up. Well, that shit might fly in the city. Good luck. Try that in a small town.” The song quickly hit the country music charts. Then, Aldean released a music video.

According to the Des Moines Register, “The song, co-written by Des Moines native Kurt Allison, received backlash due to its lyrics, which some believe contain racist undertones, and a music video that was partly shot at a Tennessee courthouse that was the site of a 1927 mob lynching of 18-year-old Black teenager Henry Choate.”

Herndon asked if people get a sense of pride that the town would band together, and the town would do something about it (big city liberalism).

Herndon: And even if that value includes we fight back if someone comes here and messes with us, that is still a value you’re proud of?

Speaker 3 (listening in). Absolutely […]

Herndon: And so it’s not incompatible with things you want to teach your children or things, whatever, because you want them all to have those values?

Speaker 3. Absolutely.

A woman named Jerrica, who lives in small-town Iowa, told Herndon, “So that’s something that I feel that in my community now. We stick up for each other. Our police officers are incredible. They have been working with our family and made us feel safe in our community. And that’s something that I think is extremely important that […] Yeah, it’s (song) speaking to the values of we stick together. We’re a community. And we stand for good morals. And I want my kids to see that.”

Just before the concert, the reporter caught up with a man named Darren, who tried to explain the connection between country music and conservative politics like Donald Trump’s. “What binds them together?” Herndon asked.

Darren. It’s the good old, I’d say, country aspect of living, of helping your neighbors — red, white, and blue.

Herndon. The nationalism? The red, white — OK.

Darren. And the Bible, everything else. It’s all about helping each other out and being true to your country. We’ve got away from that. Big time.

Herndon. The other thing that song really mentions is it’s a kind of a promise that if you do try it in a small town, that who knows what’s going to happen?

Darren. They’re going to get their ass — I can guarantee you that. I come from a small-town region. And I’ve been in a lot of small towns. People there don’t buy into all this liberalism, the transgender stuff, and all this other crap that goes along with it. We need to get back to our roots.


The Albanian-British philosopher Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History is an account of growing up in Albania during its bruising transition from communism to a capitalist system (circa 1991). Dr. Ypi, who was able to move to the UK, has been researching and teaching for more than a decade, reflecting on the distinction between “negative freedom”—a person’s preferences void of social context—and “positive freedom,” which involves making decisions based on reason, setting aside one’s immediate cravings.

Han Zhang, a member of the New Yorker’s editorial staff, has been following Lea Ypi’s career. Zhang says, “In America, ‘the land of the free’ and ‘beacon of democracy,’ people often think of freedom as an entitlement, not as something that must be realized and preserved in concert with others.”

At a talk in Chicago earlier this year (says Zhang), Ypi reminded her audience that democracy is a “demanding ideal … I want to get away from this idea that, because you have an election, democracy is secure.”

Ypi says, “There’s a dimension of freedom that’s not just about (individual or personal) satisfaction, but it’s about placing your desires in a moral context and in the context of relationship to other people, and saying, ‘Well, what makes sense for all of us?’”

Top image is by Macrovector, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Gerald Ott