Everybody's Saying It: "Guardrails"

Democracy went for a ride, but fortunately, it had its safety helmet on.

Thanks to a combination of social media and a homebound population, verbal fads have replaced clothing in the fashion hierarchy. We’re all wearing the same gross sweatpants every day — but we can at least show how hip and with-it we are by being the first to tell our online friends to “Read the room!” or beware the latest “existential threat.”

When Joe Biden nominated former Time magazine chief Richard Stengel to head the transition team for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, some observers were quick to point out the oddity of the choice. Stengel, after all, had only last year written an editorial in the Washington Post complaining that the First Amendment was just too derned broad:

All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting “thought that we hate,” but not speech that incites hate. It undermines the very values of a fair marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect.

Stengel was ahead of his time, tapping into one of the first hot phrases of the Biden era. Don’t wear white after Labor Day, but do talk about how democracy can’t survive without “guardrails.” After Biden won on Election Night, “the guardrails held” became journo-gold. A few weeks later, the new hot take was, “Did they?” Damage has been done, and we were lucky: we need those rails higher next time:

  1. “In the end, it isn’t just America’s guardrails that are being tested. Americans are being tested.” — USA Today, October 17, Trump is Pushing Democracy to the Limit and Beyond

  2. “Then along came Donald Trump 228 years later, and with the aid of a fractured Congress, the guardrails separating democracy from autocracy were felled.” — Boston Globe, November 9th, A New Morning in America

  3. “The institutional guardrails designed to contain America’s radical idea must be rebuilt and fortified by an ongoing commitment.” — Byron Williams, Winston-Salem Journal, November 7, Rebuilding the Democratic Guardrails

  4. “That alone completely eliminates one of the guardrails keeping the Justice Department from becoming a political tool.” — USA Today, November 10, Barr Enlists Justice to Advance Trump’s Baseless Election Claims

  5. “It was clear that Trump didn't care about the consequences of spreading conspiracy theories that he almost certainly knew to be false, so long as it achieved his aims; and he'd figured out that whatever guardrails had once defined the boundaries of acceptable political discourse had long since been knocked down.” — Barack Obama, November 13, A Promised Land

  6. “The guardrails broke down during the course of my presidency, partly driven by technology, partly driven by the realization by certain politicians that, you know what? We don't get punished if we don't tell the truth.” — Barack Obama, November 19, Fresh Air With Terry Gross

  7. “Prosecuting Trump after he leaves office could help rebuild democracy’s guardrails.” — CNN, November 20, Hold President Trump Accountable for his Misdeeds

  8. “American democracy has institutional guardrails — separation of powers, safeguarded by an independent judiciary — to preserve our system of government and to prevent its descent into autocracy. But the strength of these guardrails and the principles they embody are dependent on the people entrusted with their implementation.” — Laurence Tribe and Joseph Grodin, Boston Globe, Let’s Hear it for the Judges for Dismissing Trump’s Lawsuits

  9. “But I think one thing to take away from this, Judy, is the fact that the guardrails of our system actually worked.” — Amy Walter, Cook Political Report, November 23rd, in an interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS, who tweeted the quote

  10. “Seems obvious to me that if the election was closer and came down to like 1000 votes in Wisconsin, the ‘guardrails’ would not work.” — @Dave Weigel, Washington Post, November 24, in reply to Woodruff

  11. The Guardrails Held. The Tweets did not.” — Commentary, November 24th

  12. “The guardrails are flimsier than we understood.” — Edward Foley, Washington Post, November 24th, This Unnerving Election Does Not Bode Well for the Next One

  13. “The guardrails held, right? Not so fast… Though it appears that the rightful winner is heading to the White House in January, this post-election season has revealed that those ‘guardrails’ are dangerously weak, and in some cases nonexistent.” — Jeff Greenfield, Politico, Did Democracy Really Hold? Maybe Not

Honorable Mention: