Racism and democracy: the horns of the American dilemma
Updated: Jan 14
Following last week’s vivid display of how far the United States had come in its slide towards fascism during the last few years, it’s time to ponder the twin mysteries of our American future. I refer to the questions (1) Will the U.S. ever overcome its white supremacist past? and (2) Will the U.S. ever become a democracy again? Mitt Romney condemned the insurrection at the U.S. capital: "We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning."
The two questions are deeply intertwined because so much human suffering on U.S. soil can be traced to its origins in European colonization and settlement powered by captive African labor. Failure to purge slavery’s legacy led directly to Confederate flags being carried into Congress by an invading force on January 6. Our national schizophrenia about slavery and race, along with the dispossession of our indigenous people, are the most important factors explaining political rules demonstrably hostile to one-person-one-vote democracy. White unease with Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Sudanese, and other non-White immigrants, and White horror at seeing a black man in the White House, were clearly the main energy sources that a petulant, narcissistic and morally bereft Donald Trump harnessed to capture the presidency in 2016 and to launch his attack on Congress last week.
When former Soviet Bloc countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, asked to join the European Union in the 1990s, the existing EU member states set out standards prospective members had to meet to be granted admission. Markers of a path to political democracy and rule of law were laid down, and progress was measured before each country was admitted to the European club.
Not many mainstream political analysts of the time would have imagined that it would be the United States itself whose membership among the world’s democracies would be in such serious doubt three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During 2016 – 20, the Trump administration and its enablers in Congress and on the Supreme Court brought us to the point at which the western democracies had every right to warn us that our membership in that club would have to be suspended if we stepped any further beyond its normative boundaries. During those years, Trump openly declared, when asked if he would accept the election results during a 2016 presidential debate, that he’d need to think about it.
Republican leaders should have removed him from their ticket immediately, but which of them showed such integrity? There should have been a legal provision according to which an individual unwilling to accept to abide by the laws of the United States was automatically ineligible to remain on the ballot, but none existed. With one of its two main political parties turning its back on electoral democracy as a core principle, the U.S. began its slide from democracy. The Republican party wasn’t the only institution to abet this slide.
The Constitution’s system of checks and balances turned out to be missing any effective check on an anti-democratic demagogue being elected President. Without a non-partisan body on hand to disqualify an admirer of dictators from running and serving, Trump glided into office on the basis of the electoral college system that falls far short of democratic standards.
Not only was he the second president in sixteen years to have been elected without winning the popular vote, but we lacked a national truth commission to stop him from repeatedly asserting that the official vote count was fraudulent. His never-abandoned claims to have won the popular vote in 2016 turned out to be a perfect harbinger of his claim to have won the election of 2020 despite all evidence to the contrary. Every political leader who failed to challenge his occupation of the White House from 2016 onwards was complicit in enabling his attempted coup post-November 2020.
One lone Mussolini does not a fascist dictatorship make, nor could a single deranged narcissist bring down a well-established democracy. What it took was a crowd of enablers, led by Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and William Barr. The real wake-up call from the Trump debacle is the way that almost the entire senior leadership of the Republican party fell in line behind Trump and refused to call him out for what he was. When Trump engaged in treasonous acts in his conduct of foreign relations, by having more open lines of communication with Vladimir Putin and his circle than with his own intelligence officials, by threatening the ability of Ukraine to be a bulwark against Russian aggression in eastern Europe, by pretending friendship with Kim Jung Un to brush away the dangerous clash between North Korea and neighbors that the U.S. had long pledged to support, and by sacrificing America’s Kurdish allies for the convenience of his friendships with the Turkish and Russian autocrats, his Republican allies turned a blind eye. Their refusal to support his removal from office despite abundant evidence of treachery to his country and violations of his oath of office were what kept our Mussolini in power through November 2020 and beyond. When Trump said there were good people on both sides in the Charlottesville violence of 2017, and when he called on members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys to “stand by” in case needed after the 2020 vote count, when he openly pressured politicians to overturn the election results, when he encouraged a right wing rally to march on Congress to prevent the certification of the 2020 election results, and when he expressed his love for them as they began to ransack that building, senior Republican leaders failed to denounce him. A few top leaders, e.g. Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence, suddenly remembered the Constitution of the United States at the eleventh hour and stated that they lacked standing to reject the election results. But even then, they failed to condemn the President for failing to uphold the basis of the American system of government, and they’ve continued to leave him in control of the vast powers, including the codes to the world’s most dangerous nuclear arsenal.
However, our problem is much deeper than a lack of protections against one demagogue and traitor, deeper than the cowardice of the politicians he defeated to win leadership of his party. Far more fundamentally, the United States has shown itself to be anything but “one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” It’s a deeply fractured society, with many millions committed to white supremacy, to disempowerment of the poor and non-white, to making an established religion out of a warped version of Christianity that turns on their head the actual virtues preached by Jesus of Nazareth, to using heavily armed police to suppress dissent, and to setting aside the principles of democracy whenever convenient to keeping those they disagree with from holding office.
Through the Republican Party officials who align with them, these would-be white pseudo-Christian theocrats embrace voter suppression, and without the slightest hint of shame, employ the anti-democratic safeguards built into the powers of gerrymandering, the equality of states rather than of persons embodied in the powerful U.S. Senate, the electoral college system associated with the same principle, and every possible subterfuge to make voting by the poor more difficult. They show no compunction about holding back the tide of democracy whenever it suits their more deeply cherished goal of protecting the rights of their minority from the dangers they see in a diverse and open society. That’s one large chunk of America, a sizeable slice of the seventy million who cast ballots for Il Duce in 2020. The other is a whole other nation, one that routinely votes against the proponents of bigotry and anti-democracy. That nation could have achieved the high quality of life and of democratic institutions enjoyed by the nations of northwest Europe since the end of World War II, if only the propensities of its supporters to build on the foundations laid down in the Progressive and New Deal eras had been permitted to run their course. But the well-funded propaganda mill of the anti-democratic right has again and again captured political power thanks to the checks on democracy historically built into the Constitution to protect the way of life of slave-holding Virginia planters. The unwise decision of the United States to re-admit the secessionist southern states back into the Union after the Civil War without insisting that the ideology of the Confederacy be effectively uprooted, the tragic removal of Lincoln as a leader who might have helped keep re-unification from becoming the malignancy that in fact followed, and the conversion of large swaths of not only the southern but the western states of America into bastions of “white Christian American” ideology, turned the United States into the opponent of global norms, the embarrassment to the western democracies, the neigh-sayer to the Paris accords, the world capital of private gun ownership and mass shootings, and the global leader in incarceration of its minority population. The two Americas have remained in their uneasy, schizophrenic marriage for eight generations since Lincoln’s death, with no resolution of their tragic incompatibility.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog series, where I ask what lessons Germany’s post-World War II rejection of Nazism and anti-Semitism, Australia’s apology to its aboriginal peoples, and other models of nationally organized efforts to cleanse a nation’s ethnic majority of long festering racism, hold for the United States as most of its people struggle to put the era of Trump, Mitch McConnell, and a Supreme Court packed with undemocratically selected judges, behind them.