By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
On November 2, 2022, less than a week before the recent national election, President Biden delivered a speech warning against voter intimidation, political violence and threats to democracy. He also added that those who question the results of any election they lose are attempting to “subvert the electoral system itself.”
Soon afterward, Fox news reported that conservatives called the speech “despicable,” while Hayes Brown of MSNBC said it was “a solid, sincere bit of oration.”
It is not a surprise when Americans disagree, but disagreements like these are often disagreement for disagreement’s sake. I’m persuaded that before anyone warns of (or denies the existence of) “threats to democracy” Americans should have a shared definition of the term as well as a common understanding of the narrower “our democracy.”
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Dictionary definitions are pretty simple so I will start with one. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a democracy is “government by the people,” a form of government in which “sovereign power resides in the people as a whole and in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.”
Pinning down the meaning of the narrower “American democracy” is more complex. A common misunderstanding is that American democracy equals majority rule, but while the will of the majority is important, there are limitations. Since the ratification of the Bill of Rights, for example, the United States has clearly recognized that the rights of numerical minorities must be protected from both the government and from the majority.
Another fallacy is that the American system of government defines democracy for everyone. It does not. Since 1787, democracy has spread globally and almost every democratic nation has a unique structure.
In 2019 the PEW Research Center reported that more than half of countries in the world are democratic; “As of the end of 2017, 96 out of 167 countries with populations of at least 500,000 (57%) were democracies of some kind, and only 21 (13%) were autocracies. Nearly four dozen other countries – 46 or 28% – exhibited elements of both democracy and autocracy.”
There are many democratic elements at the core of how American government works, but they exist alongside a variety of anti-democratic elements. Some of these were written into the original Constitution. Others came later.
For decades the late political scientist Robert A. Dahl gave considerable attention to this dichotomy. In his 2002 book, “How Democratic is the American Constitution?” he discusses a number of undemocratic elements in the original Constitution. Only a few of these have been eliminated since 1787.
Professor Dahl’s list includes: the fact that slavery existed, that women and minorities were not allowed to vote, and the fact that votes in the Electoral College were not proportional to the population allowing the winner of the presidential election to have fewer votes than the loser.
Dahl further cites two important antidemocratic elements, both relevant today. Each state, regardless of size or population, has two senators, which gives smaller states “an increased prominence,” and that the Supreme Court Justices, with lifetime appointments, can rule on the constitutionality of laws.
If we want to reduce “threats to our democracy,” we should be talking more about how American democracy has evolved and acknowledge how the United States became more democratic by eliminating some barriers to participation.
The definition of democracy included the idea that in a democracy, “all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.” Advances towards that ideal have always come with struggle and even when progress has been made, oppositional forces have been able to push back.
The 13th Amendment managed to abolish slavery only after a bloody civil war. And, it was only after years of protest and agitation that the right of women to vote was recognized by the 19th Amendment in 1920. Unfortunately, Dahl’s other anti-democratic elements remain untouched with new barriers to participation joining them.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, was an attempt to increase democratic participation by overcoming legal barriers preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote. That progress has been slowly whittled away over the last decade by the Supreme Court starting with Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 which struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties were subject to preclearance for any new voting practices and procedures.
Although the 26th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State…” voter suppression efforts continue to be adopted by various states. These include obstacles to voting by mail, new voter ID requirements, and limiting the number of polling places in targeted areas.
Does anyone really believe that armed poll watchers with dogs is a legitimate way to increase democratic participation?
According to the Brennan Center for Justice the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reversed long-established campaign finance restrictions and increased the role of unlimited money in elections thus destroying even the pretense that Americans might participate equally.
Having said all of that, it should be clear that there are a number of serious threats to American democracy. Some are obvious, like what happened on January 6, 2021, when an armed mob attempted to overthrow the 2020 election by invading the Capitol building. Also obvious was the widespread attempt to portray all elections as suspect. Politicians refusing to admit defeat, or claiming that they were cheated, should be considered part of that threat to democracy.
The biggest threats to “our democracy” are less attacks on the voting system than factors that undermine citizen motivation to participate. Significant among those is the Increasing rates of inequality and homelessness which contributes to the existence of an unequal democracy and to the number of Americans convinced that the system is rigged against them; that they are forgotten; and that they are not represented.
The effects of inequality and unequal democracy on citizen motivation are everywhere. Unequal democracy reaches into almost every aspect of this society making it obvious that policymaking in the United States privileges the rich over the poor, as exposed by Martin Gilens in his book “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.”
Dr. Stephen Bezruchka, in his recent book, “Inequality Kills Us All,” sees this in the changes in life expectancy where, predictably, the poorest suffer the most. In overall rankings the United States dropped from a position in the top ten (in the 1950s) to our most recent position of 44th.
When, as Thomas Frank described in “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” rural communities are dominated by economic forces that transcend local control (economic deregulation, unrestrained financial markets, and deindustrialization), those affected know that the system is rigged and that they are not really represented.
When candidate Barack Obama spoke at Cooper Union in 2008 about confronting the then- current housing crisis and strengthening the regulatory system governing financial markets, he promised to make “government responsive once again to all of the American people.” Then, as president, he focused on rescuing the banks that were “too big to fail.” What were those who suffered the most to feel other than forgotten and not represented?
When a recording was released of liberal Democrats on the Los Angeles City Council engaged in racist banter and cynical discussion of gerrymandering districts to increase Latino power at the expense of others, that was proof to many that they did not matter.
Then there was Fox host Will Cain suggesting in an on-air discussion of the vote count in Arizona that perhaps fewer people should vote, by saying, “I’m here to tell you that more [voters] doesn’t mean necessarily healthy. I mean, everybody voting. Do you think everybody is invested in this?”
When Nick Bowlin observed in his article, “Joke’s on Them: The Democratic Party Meets Rural America”, “Americans of all kinds, urban and rural alike, rightfully feel excluded from the centers of political decision-making and ignored by a giant, faceless bureaucratic state,” he was describing reality for way too many.
If we want to protect and expand American democracy and eliminate “threats,” we need to engage in serious discussion about how to become more inclusive and more democratic by expanding participation. It will be difficult, but we must find ways to live up to American rhetoric and to build empathy for each other. To accomplish that an honest understanding of our history is fundamental.
At a minimum, an honest history means recognizing what happened to the native population, how their land was occupied, and how they struggle for equal rights and respect. It means, despite all the nonsensical attacks on Critical Race Theory, that we need to learn and teach about the tragedy of enslavement and come to terms with its long-term consequences. If we want a more perfect union, we must recognize the long painful struggle for suffrage and the ongoing struggle for recognition and inclusion by the LGBTQ+ communities.
Poet William Butler Yeats predicted the present perfectly more than 100 years ago in “The Second Coming:”
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
We might start by recognizing that the forces against an honest and inclusive history are also forces that want to prevent understanding and empathy. They are everywhere and they are organized. We, too, need a passionate intensity. If we do nothing, if we say nothing, our democracy will only get more undemocratic.