American Democracy Has Never Been Secure

This Wednesday, hundreds of Republican members of Congress are expected to, essentially, vote to overturn the presidential election. It will be the most brazen attack on American democracy in modern history. Why is this happening?

The answers lie in America’s distant past. Countries are like families. Generation after generation, traits reappear, sometimes after a period of hibernation. Strip away the superficial differences and you can see the continuities: Sally’s grandfather loved to tinker with radios, she likes taking apart iPhones. Jimmy looks nothing like his parents but bears a striking resemblance to his aunt.     

It’s the same with today’s Republican Party. Trump and his allies are not doing something new. They’re giving new form to something old: The idea that only some Americans deserve to vote.

The Constitution does not say the people must choose the president. In fact, many of the document’s framers were horrified at the thought. “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of [president]…to the people,” declared delegate George Mason, “as it would to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.”

The Constitution merely requires that states choose electors, who then choose the president. There’s no requirement that those electors be chosen by popular vote. In the 19th century, some state legislatures selected their electors without consulting the people. And even when the people did choose electors, those electors—who were usually men of means—were still free to disregard the popular will if they felt the people had made a mistake. It is “desirable,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68, “that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of” president. But it is “equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.”

Even when the Constitution’s framers talked about giving “the people” a voice, they didn’t mean all people. Only six percent of Americans—white, Christian, property-owning men over the age of 21—could vote in America’s first president election. White women only won the right to vote nationally in 1920. Black Americans won the right to vote for a brief period in the 1860s, then lost it again until the 1960s. 

That last statistic tells us a couple of important things. First, the assumption that Black and other non-white Americans should be able to vote is relatively new. We’re accustomed to thinking of America as an old democracy. But, as a multi-racial democracy, it’s young—even younger than some post-colonial nations in the developing world. There’s a story, which may be apocryphal, that when Vice President Richard Nixon went to attend the independence celebrations in Ghana in 1957, he turned to some of the people celebrating and asked, “How does it feel to be free?” They replied: “We wouldn’t know. We’re from Alabama.”

The second thing we should learn from that statistic is that American history doesn’t travel in one direction. Regression often follows progress. Black Americans won the right to vote after the Civil War, then lost it. And ever since Black Americans won the vote again, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, some white politicians have been curtailing it. In 2016, The New York Times calculated that Florida’s felony disenfranchisement laws prevented more than twenty percent of the state’s Black adults from being able to vote. In recent years, Republican legislatures have passed law after law requiring voters to show a photo ID, requiring that the names on those IDs exactly match the names on registration forms, purging voter rolls, and curbing early voting. Almost invariably, these new restrictions have disproportionately affected the voting rights of Black and other Americans people of color.

Sure, today’s white politicians employ a different vocabulary than their predecessors. They talk about “preserving election integrity” instead of “preserving white power.” But these rhetorical differences are superficial. The deep continuities remain. In the words of the Reverend William Barber II, “Jim Crow did not retire: he went to law school and launched a second career. Meet James Crow, Esquire.”

What Congressional Republicans plan to do on Wednesday is the culmination of these efforts. Despite felony disenfranchisement and voter ID laws and the electoral college, all of which have slanted presidential elections in the GOP’s favor, Trump lost. The country’s shifting demography, combined with progressive mobilization, and Trump’s own monstrous incompetence, allowed Biden to overcome the structural advantages that Republicans—as America’s whiter party—enjoy.

Republicans know these demographic shifts will continue. And they fear that, at some point, Democrats will gain enough control of government to undo some of anti-democratic advantages that Republicans enjoy—which could cement Democratic dominance for a generation.

It’s this shift—personified by people like Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—that has made Republican discourse so apocalyptic. Trump’s most extreme supporters talk about “white genocide.” Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler is more euphemistic. She merely says that her Black Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock, is “hell-bent on DESTROYING this country as we know it.” But in different ways, Loeffler and the neo-Nazis are saying the same thing: That if Black and other non-white Americans gain real political power, America will no longer be America. And in a sense, they’re right. Since 1789, white supremacy has been central to American government. Threaten white political dominance—as the Democrats are now doing—and you are threatening what America has always been.

On Wednesday, these two competing American principles—democracy and white supremacy—will clash. In all likelihood, democracy will prevail. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will enter the White House. But the struggle will not end, and there is no guarantee that democracy will retain the upper hand. Ironically, the only way to secure democracy’s victory is by acknowledging how fragile American democracy has always been.

“What is needed,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his 2014 essay calling for reparations to Black Americans, “is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.” Only that “national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

Donald Trump may leave the White House on January 20. But until America undergoes the kind of reckoning with its history that Coates recommends, Trumpism—which is really just white supremacy in modern guise—will remain a formidable political force. Even after Wednesday, American multi-racial democracy will remain an unrealized dream.

Other stuff:

Speaking of multi-racial democracy, Jewish Currents (subscribe here) recently published a beautiful tribute to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (didn’t they name a school after him?) on the 48th anniversary of his death, by Cornel West.

This Friday, January 8, at Noon EST, I’ll be hosting a Zoom conversation for paid subscribers on this week’s momentous events in Washington. Paid subscribers will get a reminder email on Wednesday. We’ve delayed the conversation with Princeton Professor Joshua Freeman, one of America’s foremost authorities on the Uighurs of western China, until Friday, January 15, since it’s hard for anyone to focus on events overseas right now.

In the last newsletter, I asked why the American media covers Russian hacking of the US but rarely covers US hacking of other countries. And, to its credit, the Times recently published an op-ed on that very subject. (Spoiler alert: We hack other countries a lot). 

Hope to see you Friday,

Peter