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  • Louis Putterman

Race and Democracy, Part II: The Choice for Democracy, or Siding with our Better Angels


In Genesis 32, verses 24 to 28, the patriarch Jacob is briefly separated from his family, and he spends a night wrestling with a celestial being variously identified as a man, an angel, or god. Unable to defeat Jacob or escape his grip, figure employs its supernatural power to wrench Jacob’s hip from its socket as morning approaches, and asks to be let go. Jacob offers to free it from his still fast grip in exchange for a blessing, which comes by bestowing upon him the name that both he and his descendants are to bear: Israel.


This strange tale, probably orally transmitted for centuries before the Genesis text was first written down, seems oddly appropriate at our present moment of national wrestling with our own angels and demons. The United States limps ahead at a fraught intersection between hope with despair weeks after the invasion of its capitol, days after impeachment of its outgoing president, and with a security presence exceeding any in our history, one that will hopefully support the ceremonial transfer of the White House to a new occupant if our troops can weed out the dangerous traitors in their ranks. Three thousand years after Jacob’s mythical encounter would have occurred, it still takes much wrestling, perhaps with men, perhaps with angels, for a nation to be born. We’ve been born of more than one match of wrestling. We’re here due to the wrestling between white colonizers and people whose ancestors had pitched their tends on this soil ten millennia before Jacob’s struggle. Our history includes the wrestling between three European colonizing powers (Spain, England and France) over which one would be the victorious dispossessor of those inhabitants. We inherit the outcome of wrestling over autonomy between English settlers’ descendants and their English governors. We continue to struggle with unsolved issues remaining from the late 18th century wrestling over the looseness or tightness of the union among the resulting ex-colonies, and over whether the country resulting from that union would continue to import and enslave captured Africans and their offspring. And we remain in the thick of wrestling over how free the ex-slaves and their descendants are really to be, over whether women are to be equal to men, over the question of whether our national identity is defined by a skin color, a religion, or a language, and over whether the power of companies and of wealthy individuals ought to be equated with human rights or tempered by government.


Our we approaching a new morning. With our national hip wrenched from its socket, can we wrest a blessing from the angel, limp onwards until we heel, and begin to earn a name, say “cradle of liberty” or “land of the free”?

Sometimes, what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature appear to be in the ascent. This seemed so, for instance, when he proclaimed the emancipation of the enslaved African-Americans, or when Teddy Roosevelt carried out his trust-busting campaign with undeterred resolve, or when F.D.R. fought for a New Deal, or when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. At the end of the 2nd World War, the U.S. appeared victorious over European fascism and served as an ally in the building and strengthening of democratic welfare states in Western Europe, but by the administrations of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, the U.S. was distancing itself from “old Europe” (in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase) and NATO (under Trump), and was showing more love to autocrats in Russia, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines than to former democratic allies. A demon had defeated our American Jacob.


On January 6, 2021, the ghost of the Confederacy achieved what the forces of Robert E. Lee had been unable to do during four years of Civil War: to carry the banner of the slave-holders into the halls of Congress. A president who held office by virtue of an electoral college system founded on an 18th century compromise that values states more than people, had whipped up a mob after all of his legal appeals to throw out votes cast against him had been rejected. That benighted, soulless embarrassment to all who aspire to the potential of our humanity, stoked an atmosphere in which armed hate-mongers felt entitled to capture or kill those who dared to support the U.S. Constitution rather than support their white “Christian” cause. Despite the obvious fact that their efforts ran against the principles of a nation of laws and of leaders chosen by free and fair elections, eight Republican senators and 139 Republican members of the House proceeded to vote to overturn the election result, many of them doing so just hours after the mob had been cleared from the building.


Clearly, the principle of electoral democracy is one to which millions of Americans only pay lip service. Beating back the tide of generations of change towards a more diverse America, one in which women, people of African ancestry, people descended from the indigenous stock of Mexico, Central America, or our own soil, the descendants of slaves in Haiti, Jamaica, and Brazil, people from India, Sudan, Vietnam, and many other parts of the world, including some who dare to practice Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, can live as Americans if they accept our laws and institutions, is evidently a priority for tens of millions of Americans who reject the election outcome and stand ready to reward their senators and congressmen for voting to decertify it. Not for them an abstraction like democracy or the rule of law. Harnessing the fear of those Americans has been key to the political success of the Koch Brothers, Adelsons, and other so-called conservatives who’ve successfully used it to get so many Americans to vote against their own pocket-book interests, letting inequality soar.


The dire nature of our condition cannot be overstated. We stand at a crossroads not unlike that of Germany after World War II. The reigns of our government fell into the hands of racist shredders of democracy and law, a group that came to power with a minority of votes and showed its true colors by attempting to throw out the results of the last election by any means necessary. If the leaders who a majority of Americans elected can be protected from the extremists currently working on schemes of rebellion, we then have the same work cut out for us as did Germany after Hitler. The ideology that would have the United States be a white “Christian” nation (the word Christian belonging in scare quotes because their Christianity turns Jesus’ ethos of love and inclusion on its head) must be fought as Germany did by teaching its people the truth about the Holocaust, banning extreme forms of hate speech, and making a crime of Holocaust denial. Institutionalized racism must be systematically recognized and rooted out. A full reckoning with our past economic dependence on slavery, our past dispossession of inhabitants who preceded us on this territory, guided by the true values of the great monotheistic traditions which they share with all of the world’s great-souled religious traditions, must begin, as Australia began to do when it offered an official apology to its indigenous people in 2008. Will Americans recognize this need? Millions of Americans have been deprived of real education by an economic system that pours more money into the pockets of giant tech company owners, capital managers, owners of health insurance companies and pharmaceutical patent holders, than into hiring and appropriately paying good teachers and offering a quality education, regardless of local property tax base. Teaching the virtues of our better angels, and calling out ideologies of fascism, racism and misogyny for what they are, should receive full weight in the revival of our schools, which can at the same time be a platform for making U.S. workers competitive in the world economy and able to earn the kinds of wages they had come to expect before our national decline began. That decline has allowed the U.S. not only to de-industrialize, as was partly inevitable as other countries’ working classes began to rise from extreme poverty, but also to de-skill, making the U.S. a second or third rate country with respect to both education and health care, and causing us to sink to last place among the industrialized countries on so many indices of civilization.


A final word, undoubtedly controversial. In "Perfecting our Democracy," written two months ago, and in Part I of the present post, I argued that it had been a mistake to bring states dissenting from America’s nominal commitments to democracy and equality back into the Union without having them first reform and reach their own internal consensus about living by the credo of the non-slave states. One of the most important reasons the United States did not become an enlightened democracy along the lines of today’s Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavian countries, and in most respects the other Western European nations, is that states with large populations opposed to the social progress represented by the New Deal and The Great Society have repeatedly dragged our political system rightwards since the Republican party hit upon its “southern strategy” in the late 1960s. I urge Americans to have a serious conversation about having a “do over” of what happened at the end of the Civil War. Why not consider such an alternative to waging an inconclusive civil war today? We could allow some territories with majorities that oppose liberal democracy to give up membership in the United States, as the rest of us work to achieve real democracy by reducing the powers of the unrepresentative Senate, eliminating the electoral college, creating effective constraints on gerrymandering, and establishing real safeguards against voter suppression. A solution that sees, say, Texas, Alabama, and large rural swaths of the inland plains and mountain states form polities separate from the United States, could condemn many great-hearted individuals who happen to live in those areas to be living in regressive theocracies, so the idea should not be advanced without careful discussion. But might it not be a better way forward for most Americans than to continue to battle with so divided a nation as we have today? It’s a discussion worth having, as long as so many millions within our present borders remain rejecters of democracy and equality as basic principles for our society, remain willing to vote for the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and other despisers of a democratic, multi-ethnic, and religiously pluralistic society, despisers of a society in which money is not permitted to count as a citizen.

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