The Myth of Democratic Exceptionalism – Harvard Political Review
In the words of Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” While certain elected officials may take decisive, drastic action to deconstruct democracy after rising to power, democracies are more likely to fall apart gradually, in subtle, insidious stages. The burgeoning attack on voting rights and election integrity sponsored by many Republican-controlled state legislatures epitomizes one of the many coordinated, barely visible steps currently eroding American democracy. Though President Biden recently denounced what he views as a “21st century Jim Crow assault,” along with the “raw and sustained election subversion” that endangers the very basis of democratic governance, congressional Democrats still appear reluctant to act as though they truly believe our country is in crisis.
While liberals tend to broadly condemn American exceptionalism as a dangerous ideology in terms of historiography, on the heels of the Trump era, Democrats have begun to espouse their own brand of American exceptionalism — one which lauds a mythologized, pristine legacy of American participatory democracy as a basis for championing the urgency of its preservation. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle often boast about the United States being the world’s oldest democracy, and while that may be technically accurate, by a more modern definition, the United States is really one of the world’s youngest democracies in terms of allowing its entire populace to participate in the democratic process.
American multiracial democracy is still a relatively new phenomenon in contemporary politics. At the nation’s founding in 1776, only white landowning men had voting rights. With the 1870 passage of the 15th Amendment, men of all races gained the right to vote, yet white elected officials and citizens alike instituted legal obstructions including grandfather clauses, poll taxes and literacy tests, along with engaging in racial terrorism to suppress Black male voting rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered a partial reprieve from generations of legally-enshrined Black voter suppression, but the Supreme Court recently gutted this law by fortifying the constitutional basis for restrictive voting laws, once again endangering the voting rights of African Americans.
So why, then, do so many politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle continue to champion the fallacious idea of a true, participatory democracy persisting unabated throughout United States history? For instance, former Republican and prominent Trump critic Bill Kristol recently commented, “We’re the world’s oldest democracy. It’s hard for us Americans to take threats of coups and even the dangers of authoritarianism seriously.” This idealized vision of American democracy is not only convenient for right-wing Republicans, but it is also attractive to liberals and moderate conservatives alike because it implicitly conveys that the political ascension of Donald Trump and the concurrent radicalization of the Republican party was somehow an anomaly in a stable, successful history of American democracy. This narrative cleanly absolves liberals and moderate Republicans of all responsibility for failing to recognize the anti-democratic harbingers of America’s past brushes with authoritarianism, and in turn, not doing enough to stop Trump’s rise to power.
Just as it is unreasonable to claim that America has a pristine history of always upholding democratic protections for all of its citizens, it is similarly inaccurate to pretend that America lacks historical experience with embracing authoritarianism. The Ku Klux Klan, founded right here in the U.S., is one of the world’s oldest white supremacist organizations. Boasting millions of American members, this far-right extremist group has historically sponsored voter suppression efforts and violent Capitol building coups to address their dissatisfaction with election results brought about by American multiracial democracy. This brand of attacks on democracy is not merely confined to the past, as white supremacy is still considered the biggest terror threat in the United States today.
Even in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack on the seat of our nation’s government, many liberals and Democratic elected officials still cling to the old myth that somehow, democracy will never crumble into authoritarianism in the United States. Despite all evidence, they still believe it can’t happen here. As Adam Schiff recently declared, “It may be midnight in Washington, but the sun will rise again. I put my faith in the optimism of our Founders.” However, with a recent resurgence of state-level voter suppression efforts, American democracy will not survive this prolonged sense of American exceptionalist naivete and willful blindness to the reality of how imperiled our democracy is. Democratic erosion undoubtedly can happen here, and in many ways, it already has. Thus, if authoritarianism and fascism were to prevail in the United States, it would not be an aberration; instead, it would represent a familiar return to our country’s history of democratic exclusion and participatory shortcomings.
The 2020 election fallout demonstrated to Republicans that they can disregard democratic norms without facing any political consequences. In fact, it proved that they can even benefit from embracing far-right conspiracy theories and casting doubt on the integrity of free and fair elections. With national party officials unifying behind the “Big Lie” ideology, congressional Republicans are no longer waging a policy battle; instead, they are using procedural subterfuge to advance their agenda while dissolving democratic norms. Between instituting discriminatory voter ID requirements, employing gerrymandering to dilute minority voting power, and refusing to even consider a Democratic nomination to the Supreme Court, the GOP is severely delegitimizing American democracy. It is high time for Democrats to accept this reality, move beyond an “it can’t happen here” attitude, and start fighting like our democracy depends on it — because it does.
In sharp contrast with the Democratic party’s troubling trend of passively responding to attacks on voting rights, one Georgia Democrat is notably challenging the status quo: Her name is Stacey Abrams. Democrats need to take a page out of Abrams’s overwhelmingly effective playbook. Her organizational strategy is not to immediately seek to end voter suppression policies, but instead, to override the impacts of voter suppression laws by launching massive voter registration efforts at the grassroots level. With such consistent, labor-intensive local organizing, Abrams has been extremely successful in promoting voter registration and turnout so that Democrats can still have a shot at winning — even with wide-ranging voter suppression policies in place. Once they come to power, they may use their authority to strike down these suppression laws. However, trying to out-organize sustained voter suppression is an untenable long-term solution.
Therefore, by amending the filibuster, Democrats could gain the opportunity to pass laws to strengthen America’s participatory democracy and reduce the risk of backsliding. Although Democrats only wield a razor-thin national majority, even passing Senator Joe Manchin’s compromise proposal — which would outlaw partisan gerrymandering, institute automatic voter registration, bolster the Voting Rights Act, and establish Election Day as a national holiday — would significantly expand American democracy on a level not seen since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Throughout the Trump era, Democratic leaders have delivered countless impassioned speeches about the high stakes of preserving our democracy. However, in order to have a fighting chance at doing so, it’s time to leave behind the fallacy that backsliding cannot happen here and take on the arduous, long-term work of passing comprehensive voter protection laws 一 and in the meantime, local organizing 一 in hopes of ensuring that it won’t happen again.
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