President Biden was clocking along fairly well, we thought, as he worked his way toward the end of his first presidential press conference. He may have been a bit halt here and there, but he tried to speak in paragraphs, a refreshing change. Plus, he sketched his priorities a bit, which showed glimpses of strategic thinking (read, retreat). Then, however, he flung at the Republicans the word “un-American.”
We confess we’ve never liked that epithet. It’s not the McCarthy-ish tone that puts us off. It’s the nastiness of the phrase that we don’t like, and its imprecision. One wouldn’t get the same definition of the word from, we’d hazard, two in a hundred persons. Plus, the phrase is warned against in “The New York Sun Reporters Handbook and Manual of Style.”
In that guide to usage, the expression “un-American” is tucked between “ultra-Orthodox” (which is not allowed in the Sun; it prefers simply “Orthodox”) and “unattributed negative quotes” (which are also not allowed absent special dispensation). Use of the word “un-American” is not banned outright. Reporters, though, are prompted to try instead using the word “unconstitutional.”
Anyhow, un-American struck us as an inaccurate and obnoxious word for Mr. Biden to use in respect of the various efforts in the states to reform their voting laws. Mr. Biden was asked by a reporter about whether he’s worried about Republican legislatures “working to pass bills that would restrict voting, particularly, Democrats fear, impacting minority voters and young voters.”
“What I’m worried about,” the President snapped, “is how un-American this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick.” He railed about proposed restrictions on bringing water to voters in line (Georgia may ban bringing water, food, and money). Setting strict rules on behavior at voting places will be called racist by some and prudent by others. It will be hard, though, to set it down, as Mr. Biden did, as “un-American.”
Or, to use the Sun stylebook, unconstitutional. That’s because the Constitution so pointedly leaves the writing of voting rules to state legislatures, which is why the process of jockeying in state legislatures over voting laws is such an American process. We’re against laws calculated to deter minorities from voting. We’re also against last minute changes designed to disadvantage one party over another.
Which, in our view, helped fuel the bitterness over the 2020 vote. And fuel, too, what the Brennan Center in January called a “backlash” that has seen the number of restrictive bills being considered in the states triple to more than 100 from a year earlier. It insists what’s going on in the states is rooted in racism. Some, maybe; all, we doubt it. The Democrats won in court in 2020, so we’ll see.
Nothing being done at the state level, though, is any more cynical than the kind of over-ride that the Democrats are trying to get through Congress. That measure, known as H.R. 1, would nationalize all sorts of details of election procedures that the Constitution contemplates being handled by the states, all in service of perpetuating a Democratic Party majority. What word would Mr. Biden use for that?