How “Sacred” is American Democracy?
Before you scream, “Freedom!”, yes, America has freedom, but according to Freedom House, so do 83 other countries. It is possible to understand the value of American democracy compared to other countries which might be worse off, while also having the ability to objectively criticize it. Over the past few years, any criticism of the flaws in American democracy has been labeled unpatriotic, more so than attempting to “find” nonexistent votes to overturn a presidential election. Two things can be true, you can value all of the benefits that come along with American democracy, and you can also critique it. Those same people who claim the criticisms are unpatriotic are also the ones in which democracy doesn’t work against.
Watching the events of January 6th unfold as people stormed the United States Capitol building, political analysts guiding viewers through the day kept using religious terms to describe what was happening. As the rioters marched through Statuary Hall, one political commentator said it felt like “sacrilege.” Another referred to the US Capitol has the “cathedral” of US democracy and called the counting of the electoral votes a “sacred” right. All of those things may be true, but that sentiment opened up the opportunity for the vision of a perfect American democracy to be tested.
Understandably, those television commentators and analysts who went to work on January 6th with the task of covering a mundane tenet of democracy — Congress confirming the electoral votes — were shocked when their task transformed into narrating an insurrection. So it feels harsh to bring up how they viewed something that was obviously shocking to them and calling it sacrilege. It would have ruined the moment if the commentator said, “Look, they are breaking into the Capitol building, a shining symbol of democracy here in America. But have you seen the representative from Ohio Jim Jordan’s gerrymandered district?! How about politicians actively trying to disenfranchise black voters?” That just doesn’t feel right.
A working, efficient, and truly representative democracy has some inherent hardships amongst a large population such as the United States. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher once said about democracy, “Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men.” It is believed that Rousseau was not necessarily talking about the perfection of the democratic system itself, but rather the perfection it takes to run a democracy.
From a young age, Americans are taught that US democracy is the pinnacle of all political systems. That the American democratic way is the “sacred” government which all nations strive to achieve and the US (invades) other nations to promote. While understanding the value of the American democratic system, including freedom, US democracy is far from perfect.
For many people, one of the first things that come to mind when they hear the word democracy is voting, but that is only a small, yet integral piece of the puzzle. As Michael Gallagher writes in Comparing Democracies, “A regime under which elections do not take place clearly does not qualify as a democracy under pretty much any definition of that term, but the mere holding of elections does not suffice to render a state democratic.” This idea can be taken a step further. The mere holding of free and fair elections does not render a democracy perfect. One of the main boasts of democracy as a political system, and in the US in particular, is inclusive voting where everyone has the right for their voice to be heard. It is a key tenet of democracy, and if you use that as a metric, the United States has only been a full democracy since 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed which secured the right to vote for racial minorities and outlawed disenfranchisement.
Fast-forward fifty-five years later and the reality is that there are still two American democracies for two different populations. Voter disenfranchisement is not outlawed, but expected, and disproportionately targeted at black and minority voters. Places like Georgia have been the hotspot for making life difficult for black voters. NPR highlighted a story of a voter in Georgia in the 2020 primary election who pulled up to the voting station to see hundreds of people waiting in line in the rain in an area that was 88% black. The woman waited for five hours just to get into the polling station only to be told that the electronic scanners were shut off and she would have to cast a provisional ballot. According to a ProPublica and Georgia Public Broadcasting analysis, Georgia voter rolls have grown by nearly two million people, but polling stations have been reduced by 10%. Nine counties in the metro Atlanta area which account for nearly half of the state’s active voters have only 38% of the state’s polling places.
The NPR article also notes a data analysis by Stanford University Professor Jonathan Rodden finding “that the average wait time after 7 p.m. across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90% or more nonwhite, but only six minutes in polling places that were 90% white.” Stories like this are common throughout the country and don’t happen by accident.
After Trump’s election defeat in Georgia, the chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Republican Party said that they needed to implement new election laws, such as denying partial access to no-excuse absentee voting, which had been in place for over a decade. Her reasoning did not seem to be based on any legitimate concerns with the voting process, as she stated, “They don't have to change all of them [voting laws], but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot of winning.”
Other actions such as partisan gerrymandering to stack a state in favor of one party over the other, which both parties do and is necessary in some cases based on demographics, felony voting laws, voting ID laws, and the removal of polling stations in minority areas all work to disenfranchise voters.
In North Carolina in 2013, in what was deemed “The Country’s Worst Anti-Voting Law,” the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law “[requiring] strict voter ID to cast a ballot, [cutting] a week of early voting and [eliminating] same-day voter registration, out of precinct voting and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.” The bill was approved in both the House and the Senate with zero Democrats voting in favor. It was eventually struck down by the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals which said that the law was intended to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
If American democracy and voting were in fact “sacred,” would there be a need to renew efforts to keep a large segment of the population from voting in every election cycle? The term sacred means to have reverence for something. Either our understanding of democracy is flawed or our institutions aren’t as committed to upholding democratic values as the campaign slogans suggest.