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Biden takes political risk by ignoring public clamour for Gaza ceasefire

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Picture: Spencer Platt / Getty Images via AFP / Taken on November 15, 2023 – Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and for free speech outside of the Columbia University campus on November 15 in New York City. The university suspended two student organisations, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voices for Peace, for violating university policies. The US president’s refusal to heed the will of the people seems outdated at best, authoritarian at worst, the writer says.

By Shira Lurie

The past two months have witnessed some of the largest anti-war protests in American history. Hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country have held rallies, marches, and sit-ins calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

These actions aren’t just indicative of the far left — they align with popular opinion. Polls regularly return a majority in favour of de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire, including a recent Data for Progress poll that revealed 61percent of all likely voters and 76 percent of Democrats support a ceasefire.

Yet Biden has remained unmoved. Last month, when questioned about the prospect of a ceasefire, he replied firmly, “None. No possibility.”

On December 8, the United States vetoed a United Nations resolution for an immediate ceasefire — the resolution was the product of an emergency security council meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the United States was the sole vote against (the UK abstained). The following day, Biden issued an emergency order to sell Israel an additional $106 million of ammunition.

As a result, Biden’s approval ratings have sunk. He is now polling at under 40 percent.

Many Democrats, especially Muslims, are pledging not to vote for “Genocide Joe” in November. This could have severe ramifications in the electoral college as several key states, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, have significant Muslim populations.

The distance between Biden and the American people on this issue raises important questions about the nature of accountability in American politics. How responsive should officials be to their constituents once elected? What political power do citizens surrender through the act of election? Are elections a sufficient check on officials, or are other methods needed to secure political change?

The distance between Biden and the American people on this issue raises important questions about the nature of accountability in American politics.

These are not new questions. Indeed, they are as old as American democracy itself.

When the first generation of Americans had to make sense of their transition from subjects to citizens, they debated these very same ideas about the nature of elections and the appropriate responsiveness of officials. These disputes fuelled the major protests of the nation’s early years and shaped important elections.

While protesters insisted on the importance of popular organising to influence officials, those in power claimed that through the act of election, citizens deferred politics to their representatives. If constituents did not approve of their representative’s actions in office, they should vote them out at the next election. But protests were illegitimate — they caused disorder and violence and challenged the authority of elected officials.

Even Samuel Adams, a once ardent revolutionary, claimed that representative government obviated the need for popular political actions because “as we now have constitutional and regular governments and all our men in authority depend upon the annual, free elections of the people, we are safe without them”.

But this perspective did not sit well with many early Americans who looked to The American Revolution and other earlier crowd actions as endorsements of popular organising’s importance in determining political outcomes. And so, when President John Adams cracked down on protesters with the Sedition Law of 1798, which made it a federal crime to criticise or organise in opposition to the government, the voters confined him to one term.

By refusing to adapt to popular opinion, Biden risks the same fate.

His current attitude evokes the earlier generation who demanded that Americans leave politics to the politicians. And while their elitism may have been expected when the American experiment in self-government was in its infancy, Biden does not have the same excuse.

His refusal to heed the will of the people seems outdated at best, authoritarian at worst.

The conflict between Hamas and Israel — which operates with significant American military backing — has revealed the ugly implications embedded in the American electoral process and unearthed centuries-old arguments about the nature of the citizenry’s political power.

All the while, the death toll and destruction in Gaza mounts and November creeps ever closer.

Shira Lurie is an assistant professor of American History at Saint Mary’s University and author of “The American Liberty Pole”.