By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
In the last week or so I have received at least five mailers asking for donations to “save our democracy.” And, in recent episodes of broadcast news, I’ve heard mention of multiple “threats to our democracy” emanating from claims of election fraud, attempts at new voter restriction, gerrymandering schemes, and various long-term results of Shelby County v. Holder which narrowed provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
While I have no reason to doubt that most of these “threats” are sincerely felt, they all seem to assume that, in this country, we have a common definition of “democracy” with characteristics that often seem to have been relatively stable since, perhaps, the end of the Civil War. But that is not true.
To understand, it is essential to acknowledge that the United States was not created as a democracy. The founders, after all, created a government that accepted slavery, engaged in genocide against the Indigenous peoples, and denied voting rights to all women and to men without property.
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The 1787 Constitution featured a number of anti-democratic elements. In the Congress, only the House of Representatives was popularly elected, senators were selected by state legislatures and the anti-democratic Electoral College chose the president.
What seems lost in current discussions of democracy in the U.S. is the painful history of struggle, largely by marginalized groups, to be included while those with privilege did all they could to exclude them. Objections to an inclusive democracy are nothing new.
Democracy Does Not Have Just One Definition
Part of the problem is that most Americans seemed to have learned to define democracy rather casually. As a result, some accept the simple idea that democracy equals voting. Others prefer the more chauvinistic and dangerous belief that the government of the United States is the very definition of democracy. So Lincoln’s pronouncement at Gettysburg, that we have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” might be the best one can expect.
In “Democracy’s Meanings: How the Public Understands Democracy and Why It Matters” (2023) the authors argue that Americans think about democracy in ways that “go beyond voting or elected representation.” In their book, they classify these viewpoints into four groups. The smallest group, comprising about 10% of Americans, is made up of citizens who see democracy as an ambiguous and ill-defined concept.
Those in the other three groups see democracy as having a purpose: The first group believes that, in a democracy, voting and fair treatment are most important goals while ideas about equality are mostly limited to civil liberties. The second group believes that democracy ought to facilitate basic social and material needs of citizens. And the third sits somewhere in between the previous two.
But no matter the group, when Americans have been asked, in a variety of polls, if they feel that their democracy is working well, the responses tend to be pessimistic.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2022, 6 in 10 said democracy is in crisis. According to a 2022 Quinnipiac poll, 69% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans think the nation’s democracy is on the brink of collapse. And the figure for independents is similar at 66%. In a 2023 poll from Associated Press, only about 1 in 10 gave high ratings to the way democracy is working.
One crucial factor in all of these polls is that when the questions are asked, they are not preceded with a specific definition of democracy. That leads one to question what the various responders think is not working.
High School Texts Do Not Define Democracy
In “The Americans,” the first mention of the word “democracy” is in a description of what the Puritans did NOT intend to create. “Although Puritans made no effort to create a democracy, the Massachusetts Bay Company extended the right to vote not only to stockholders but to all adult male members of the Puritan church – 40 percent of the colony’s men.”
Later in the same text, it is written that in the early days of the country, Americans “favored a republic – a government in which citizens rule through elected representatives…” and not a democracy, which, they feared, “placed power in the hands of the uneducated masses.”
In “History Alive!,” democracy is elevated to a “founding ideal” best expressed in the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But, on the same page in a sidebar, the authors add that “The right to vote is so instrumental to a democracy that most Americans today think little about it. For much of our history, however, this right was denied to women and most African-Americans because their consent was not considered important to those who governed.”
Nothing is written in either text suggesting that denying the vote to so many disqualified the early United States from being democratic. And very little is written that specifically identifies how the bumpy moves toward democracy involved seemingly endless conflicts, compromise and accommodations.
It is hard to know what students are supposed to take from these descriptions. And I confess that, as a teacher, I never fully realized how utterly useless such explanations were. Perhaps most of us (teachers, students, publishers) just assume that the meaning of democracy is clear and commonly held.
In any case, the careless use of the word “democracy” in textbooks does seem to explain, at least in part, how so many Americans seem to hold very different views of what democracy entails or should foster.
What should a high school text teach about democracy?In general, high school texts should contain a simplified version of what Princeton historian Sean Wilentz writes in his massive work “The Rise of American Democracy.” He begins with a description of the historical arc of the term stating that “Important elements of democracy existed in the infant American republic of the 1780s, but the republic was not democratic…”
“Democracy” is a troublesome word…. Since the Revolution, citizens, scholars, and political leaders have latched onto one or another aspect of government or politics as democracy’s essence. For some it is a matter of widened political rights, usually measured by the extent of the suffrage and actual voting; for others, democracy means greater opportunity for the individual pursuit of happiness; for still others, it is more cultural phenomenon than a political one, ‘a habit of the heart,’ as de Tocqueville put it…”
In other words, democracy is multifaceted. Wilentz describes it as a process “…rooted in a vast array of events and experiences, that comes into being out of the changing human relations between governors and the governed.” And he concludes by writing that, “Today, democracy in America means enfranchisement, at a minimum, of the entire adult citizenry.”
This idea that democracy depends on the enfranchisement of the whole adult population is key. Contemporary attempts to reduce, limit, or render less effective the votes of so many are clear extensions of the founder’s fear of “the people,” or in other words, their fear of an inclusive and diverse democracy.
Democracy, Wilentz concludes, “is never a gift, [but] must always be fought for, by political coalitions that cut across distinctions of wealth, power, and interest…democratic successes are never irreversible.”
The Value of Democratic and Anti-Democratic Examples
I am convinced that it would be helpful if schools, from the beginning of high school, would teach students to identify policy elements, in a variety of countries, that are democratic or anti-democratic.
At the very least, the fundamental question would cease to be whether or not the United States is a democracy, but rather whether students can identify elements that are democratic as well as those that are anti-democratic in a variety of governments. Here is some of what they might discuss:
Examples of structural anti-democratic elements in American government would include the fact that senators were originally selected by state legislatures but also that each state, regardless of population, still has only two senators which is a clear contradiction with one person, one vote.
A well-known post-civil war example of an anti-democratic policy is found at the end of Reconstruction when, with the enactment of Jim Crow laws, recently enfranchised Black men were systematically denied the vote.
Another example, perhaps lesser known, is how Susan B. Anthony, argued like many women suffragists did, that the 14th Amendment clearly gave women the right to vote by stating that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
Given that she was a citizen, she registered, voted, was arrested, and then convicted.
At the trial’s end she addressed the court, “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”
Contemporary Attempts to Reduce the Size of the Electorate
Today’s “threats to democracy,” which continue to extend the original fear of “the people,” come from those opposed to increasing the number of voters. This is especially true when these new voters include people of color and/or those less wealthy. It is no accident that those now claiming election fraud never accuse the residents of the most privileged districts.
In 2021, anti-democratic forces in Georgia, for example, reacted quickly when an expanded electorate resulted in Democratic victories in presidential and Senate elections. In response, the state legislature passed new restrictions on voting. Among them are strict new ID requirements and a reduction in the time available to request absentee ballots.
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed the state’s list of voters without ID by comparing it with their registration information, they found that more than half are Black and mostly live in large Democratic-leaning counties. Seemingly, just to add a note of cruelty, the Georgia legislature also made it illegal to provide water to voters waiting in long lines.
Other Ways to Attack Democracy
Rhetorically at least, the majority of Americans accept the idea that democracy requires universal enfranchisement. So, when it becomes too obvious, or too difficult, to reduce voter participation, those who oppose universal enfranchisement have found ways to make voting much less effective. These too are extensions of the founders’ fears.
One of the most common ways of making voting less effective is to gerrymander districts. But even when the Supreme Court recently concluded that Alabama’s gerrymandered congressional districts were created specifically to prevent a second majority-Black district, the state defied the Court’s order to give minority voters a greater voice. And, so far, their defiance is holding.
The Increasing Power of Lobbyists
In any democracy it is assumed that those elected have a duty to listen to constituents. Thus, lobbying by constituents is an expected part of democracy, but this practice is now dominated by multi-million dollar organizations. Those hoping to bring attention to philosophical or moral issues are drowned out.
Nevertheless, the only mention of lobbyists in the history textbooks that I have is in “History Alive!.” The first mention is accompanied by an early 20th century sketch of “two female lobbyists” attempting to influence two senators to support women’s suffrage. The second mention reports that, in the 1860s, C.P. Huntington traveled to Washington as a lobbyist in order to get government support for a transcontinental railroad.
Times have changed. Right now, there are 535 members in both houses of Congress, each with a small staff. But OpenSecrets reports that in 2022 at least 13,784 organizations deployed 12,609 federal lobbyists. In 2022, the money spent on lobbying climbed to $4.1 billion. That is what “two female lobbyists” attempting to speak to a senator about abortion access in 2023 would be up against.
The list of the top 10 lobbying groups in 2022 indicates what causes these lobbyists are likely to represent. The National Association of Realtors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Big pharma, the American Hospital Association, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Amazon, the American Medical Association, the Business Roundtable, the American Chemistry Council and Meta (formerly known as Facebook). No matter who wins the elections these 12,609 professional lobbyists remain.
The Economist publishes an annual “Democracy Index” measuring the worldwide state of democracy, primarily in the realm of political institutions and political freedoms. In recent years, the United States has been rated a “Flawed Democracy.”
Of course, the struggles for and against inclusive democracy continues. And, of course, this country has experienced deep divisions before.
The Depression caused many to fundamentally doubt the American economic system. The assassination of Martin Luther King left a permanent scar on the American psyche. Our aggressive war in Vietnam fragmented the population. But the country did move forward and the 1970s saw progress in voting rights, gay rights, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Nixon’s visit to China.
One wonders how different the current period is. Divisions in public opinion run deep and receive constant attention. But the question remains whether these current splits — on issues including fundamental women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, school curriculum, school books, and immigration — will end up destroying the goal of an inclusive democracy and leave the federal government unable to govern.
Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).