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Our Democracy Is Not Weak — It Was Never Strong

Americans love to tout that they live in a democracy. We enshrined the values of representative government in our national lore as we declared our independence. Our complaint was that the British crown had not heard nor responded to the pleas of his people, except with tyranny. We put "the People" as the actors establishing our Constitution, even though that was wording to overcome the divisions between states during its drafting. "We the People" is the political assertion at the very start of our fundamental governing document. Our assertions have traveled in line with larger movements espousing universal rights of human beings to determine their own affairs. 

As I was growing up, that universal view was the only one I could see. It surrounded me in popular culture and at school. I grew up looking at the covers of Life magazine that featured paintings by Norman Rockwell depicting "everyday" America. This was a land of the free and home of the braveyou could see it in his paintings. 

Rockwell, Freedom of Speech
Rockwell painted scenes showing American values in action that grew to be emblems of democracy. One showed a New England town meeting with a man standing up to share his thoughts. He's dressed as a laborer and you can see men around him in suits. While of humble station, he has the ability to stand and speak his mind to his community. 

The artist called this one, Freedom of Speech as one of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt declared in early 1941 as America was headed towards its second global war. The full set were the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. Simple, iconic, and asserting American goals for the conflict.  

Such images were part of growing up in America during the 1950s and 1960s, and framed the mythology we sought to embrace. But while myths may contain truth, often in aspiration, they do not depict reality. For almost all of our history we have not even been close to being a democratic nation. 

Africans in America and their descendants were held as property without any rights until 1865. Their moment of liberation was soon spoiled as Jim Crow laws and white mobs forced them back into a fearful, servile state. Most descended into a different form of bondage, that of debt servitude as sharecroppers. They soon lost access to the franchise as whites intimidated them with mob violence and the threat of the noose. 

Nor could women vote or hold office. Their situation was different because they suffered while sharing a bed with their oppressors. A woman's wedding vows often contained the word "obey" as she pledged her life to her husband. Upon marriage, a woman's propertyif anybecame the property of her husband. Was she property herself? Many men thought so and acted as if she were.

Some will point out that in 1920 women gained the right to vote and by 1965 the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts dismantled Jim Crow and protected the franchise. Even accepting that as evidence of democratic reality, as a nation we were by no means a democracy from 1776 to 1965. 

The question remains, are we a democracy today? Are we equally represented in our federal government. Not by a long shot. 

A voter in Wyoming has more than three times the power than a voter in North Carolina in presidential elections. In each of the Dakotas and Alaska, their power is twice that of my state. Lest we consider this a mere partisan measure, both Hawaii and Vermont have similar influence. 

This situation is because of an ancient compromise that created the Electoral College, giving each state votes based on their representation in Congress. The imbalance is because the Senate gives each state two senators no matter the size of their population. That means that California with over 39 million voters has the same voting power as Wyoming—resulting in a state with 12% of the total population holding the same clout as a state with 0.17% of the people.

But we cannot stop there. Efforts to draw and redraw voting districts after the 2010 Census have gerrymandered many voters from having equal voting power. Because of the efforts of the GOP in North Carolina, our state legislature is dominated by Republicans even though the voters are evenly split overall between the parties. Republicans drew new maps that created districts to guarantee them a majority of the seats ever since.

Finally, there is the issue of money. Wealthy people have always had access to the levers of government and their voices are always heard first and clearest. But in 2010, that power was supercharged in a Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, that declared corporations were legally people and therefore entitled to speech under the First Amendment. In practical terms that meant that the largest concentrations of wealth in America could vocally advocate for public policy and on behalf of candidates. Or even themselves. This election cycle we have seen several billionaires fund their own campaigns for president.

So, are we a democracy? The most optimistic answer is, not yet.


Progress is Our Myth and Our Reality

There's a famous quotation by John Adams that bears repeating:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Adams was writing his wife while we were fighting the British in our war of independence. The prospect of victory was on the horizon, but by no means assured. Yet, he offers us a progression of steps from one generation to those that follow where the purposes of our lives are meant to rise. Granted, he only lists his sons as involved in the endeavor, but that's just a relic of his time. The point here is that he embraced both the gritty reality of his time and the promise of the future. 

We stand at a similar juncture faced with grim realities. We suffer under a regime animated by white, male supremacy and abetted by institutions that should have other, more important allegiances. These include some in the evangelical community who forsake the admonition to love one's enemies to those in Congress who ignore their oaths to protect the Constitution. It seems that their love of power and hopes for reasserting gender and racial supremacy obstruct these higher callings. 

What would Adams have made of these people and the situation where we reside? What would his colleagues say who later worked to create the Constitution and form a government meant to serve the general welfare? 

Some may call these the myths of the American imagination. And they have some justification for using the term. since when our government was founded it enslaved one-fifth of the people living here and continued periodic efforts to drive Native Americans from their lands. Moreover, Adams and the other Founders did not "remember the ladies" in their formation of the new government. It was not until 1920 that we rectified the prohibition against women voting and not until 1965 that we did the same for people of color in the South. Most of our history is a story of conflict and subjugation as white men spread their domination across the continent. 

Yet, there is that persistent myth. There is the notion that all are equal, however imperfectly expressed and usually honored more in its breach. The myth persists and animates those who oppose efforts to silence others' right to speak--whether on the street or in the ballot box. 

The myth lives as a progressive dream, like Adams' thoughts about the generations to come. It has power to lift our eyes above the ground we must of necessity trod. It beckons us to become better than we are. 

The myth calls for pragmatic and practical steps. More to come.