From the successful marketing of what became America’s Constitution in 1788 until today, we Americans have not only celebrated our commitment to democracy, we have proudly proclaimed our union to have brought democracy to the world and that, even now, we are the world’s most democratic nation. I’ll leave those boasts unquestioned in this post and just focus on my observation that we seem less clear about just what democracy means. We typically speak of widespread franchise, rule of law, personal freedom, egalitarian counting of votes, and 50%+1 wins, along with rights enumerated in our Constitution and its amendments.
At least, those are the things we talk about in Fourth of July speeches and political campaigns. Closer inspection, I’m afraid, shows a bit less commitment to democracy in our day-to-day politics and ongoing conduct of the country’s business. Political actions in matters of on-the-ground behavior, rather than in our patriotic rhetoric, reveal less commitment to democracy than we’d like to believe. Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.
Restricted franchise by race. We began as a nation by excluding slaves from the “we the people” from whom all political authority arose and for whom the new nation existed. Not only did slaves have no voting rights, their “owners” were awarded with 3/5 of a count toward U. S. House representation for each slave owned, a double repudiation of democracy. Things did change after a horrid war and Constitutional Amendments 13, 14, and 15, but even that slowly and grudgingly. At the end of the 1950s, seven Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) used literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. As we all know, there was still much to be done.
Restricted franchise by religion: In the years before the American revolution, the vote was denied to Catholics in five colonies and Jews in four. Those without any religion were widely unfranchised, a number that on close inspection would have included a number of our founders. Even today, seven states’ constitutions single out atheists for numerous roles of citizenship. Those are now unenforceable, but woe to any legislator who proposes to remove the wording.
Restricted franchise by property ownership: In pre-constitutional America, there were wide variations of the general prohibition against voting by men without property. This was due in part to a “no representation without taxation” approach (so that payment of property tax qualified one to create public debt). Only white males with property could vote, said to be 10 to 16 percent of the population. After the Constitution was in place, the limitation of voting to property owners continued for decades. States during the 1800s gradually rescinded the property requirement.
Restricted franchise by gender: Women were excluded from voting and holding office until much later upon passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. While the controversy led to no war, it was nevertheless hard fought.
Inconvenienced franchise by economics: Anti-black practices sought to nullify some of the freeing effects of post-Civil War amendments. They included poll taxes, setting inconvenient voting times, and intimidation. The current controversy over voter identification is part of this struggle.
Restricted franchise by age: One can make the case that the proper age for voting can never be established with certainty. In 1970 suffrage was extended to age 18 by Amendment 26. It was due, in large part, to young people having died in conflict in Vietnam. Those for the amendment were, in effect, saying that to exclude persons over 18 (already authorized if 21) from the right to vote was insufficient democracy.
Passive-aggressive indecision: Politicians can simply allow a balanced political unit to deteriorate due to resignations, rendering an ostensibly bilateral unit representing one party more than another. This tactic was, in part, involved in nomination of members to the National Labor Relations Board in the years 2007-2013. (You could make the case that these dynamics were actually not so passive.)
Open choice not to perform: Similar to the former action, this is openly aggressive. A 20th century examples is Pres. Roosevelt’s seeking to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. A 21st century example is Sen. McConnell’s refusal for the Senate to fulfill its Constitutional job of considering Pres. Obama’s SCOTUS nomination based on a thin—even mendacious—rationalization.
Mis/disinformation from leaders: When political leaders convey inaccuracies, some groups are disadvantaged more than others. (I’ve no data about the relative occurrence by party, so my example here will be biased if mistaken to intend a specifically Republican behavior.) The 2016 campaign was bursting with “alternative facts,” so mis/disinformation occurred regularly. Newt Gingrich in a TV interview referred to America’s high crime rate. When the interviewer challenged Gingrich’s misinformation, he replied that people feel there’s more crime, and feeling is reality to them. Yet treating fear as equal to fearful conditions is self-fulfilling, leaving gullible voters even more misinformed in the direction of supporting one partisan side.
Deliberate impairment of the voting system: Gerrymandering may be the single most damaging political practice facing American democracy now and, if so, second only to out-and-out obstruction of voting. The past few years have seen an astounding increase in gerrymandered House districts, largely by and favoring the Republican party. This has been an admittedly intentional Republican strategy to attain more seats than a democratic process would otherwise produce. In voting for Members of Congress, consider the percentage of votes by party compared to the percentage of House seats rendered by gerrymandering in each year of the most recent Congressional races:
|Year of vote||Dem votes||Rep votes||Winner of votes||Dem seats won||Rep seats won||Winning % of seats|
|2012||48.4%||47.1%||Dem won by 1.3%||200||234||Rep won by 7.8%|
|2014||44.9%||50.7%||Rep won by 5.8%||188||247||Rep won by 13.6%|
|2016||47.3%||48.3%||Rep won by 1%||194||241||Rep won by 10.8%|
I must share a few provisos. First, these data (source: Fareed Zakaria) do not consider other factors, some of which are about to be considered by the Supreme Court. For example, do voters “gerrymander themselves,” as one conservative spokesperson put it, in that liberals are disproportionately moving to cities and conservatives the reverse? Second, is it even possible that Congressional districts can be calculated with fairness in light of uneven geography and social dynamics? Third, have Democrats done their own share of gerrymandering (albeit less effectively), thereby reducing the whole matter to turn-about-is-fair-play? Fourth, as to Representatives whose re-elections are protected by gerrymandering, is there a way to force engagement with what otherwise would be normal legislative compromise (since their seats are safe, even weakened by compromise)? Fifth, is there a critical mass of gerrymandering that would foreclose going back to less partisan districting—that is, might the interlocking effects on state legislatures and on Congressional seats become irreversible?
Lack of informed citizen participation: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” Pogo said. As a society, we act as if political protections are important only when they are critically endangered or lost. In voter turnout, the United States places 28th among the 35 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (source: PEW Research). In the 2016 election, 55.7% of the voting age population voted; even among those, a distressing number gave the matter less studied attention than their next smart phone purchase. Midterm elections run about 40%.
Freedom and liberty are our watchwords, but as often as not we attach them to narrow interests and rarely engage with either the philosophical or the practical depths of the issues. Democracy does not automatically maintain itself. We have the capacity to contemplate and to write profoundly about its importance to a free society. We have the flag-waving pride to boast of our commitment to democracy. We even have a history of a number of incremental improvements in democratic inclusion.
But we are also imbued with the drive to get our own way, to please our own desires and those of our close comrades. In the face of more immediacy, our commitment to safeguard the system itself retreats to the background. The needs of the moment—perhaps a proposed bill, a partisan advantage, willingness to override a democratic safeguard—are in the foreground, and therefore command our attention. There are always legislative skirmishes to be won. The vulnerable system of democracy can wait . . . though weakened with each erosion.
Just as Ben Franklin warned (yes, I’ve used this quote before), we have a republic, if we can keep it.