Democracy is a funny concept. Democracy remains the United States’s greatest ideal, most announced achievement, most grasped buzzword and yet, its greatest and perhaps most unachievable challenge. Why is it so hard for so many to live by “we the people” and “life, liberty, and justice for all”?
One of the first on-going obstacles to democracy is that we live in a vastly imperfect world still, obviously, ran by humans. People make mistakes. People are greedy. People are contradictory. People are afraid of anything new or different. In evolutionary terms, humans are basically still just babies in a universe that is billions of years old. Science provides important insights into just how much we are bound biologically, physiologically, and sociologically beyond our control. Consider the recent statements by Paula Deen and yet again by Dan Cathy. Sure they have the free speech to say what they want to, but they should know better but they don’t. Cathy’s statement about the founding fathers (see slide show below) indicate that he, like the vast majority of people in the United States, knows absolutely nothing about them.
Both liberals and conservatives criticize each other for advocating free speech and the right to protest but only to the extent that it supports their agenda. Both sides say that people on the other side “can’t think for themselves” and “are going to cause the nation to fall to the ground.” As a historian, however, I try (except on my personal Facebook sometimes!) to be above politics per se. I recognize that the nation has always been divided along various political lines. Opposing groups have always both said, “The world is going to end as a result of your actions.” But, we are still here, moving along.
Democracies exist in opposition to oligarchies or monarchies and theocracies, for example. But how is it actually possible to not have some “theocratic” element? For just a moment: consider the definition of a theocratic government in its simplest way as describing a system of government whereby the laws and leaders are determined by a very strong adherence to a given set of values condoned or ordered by a higher power. Since virtually everyone has values (even if it is a “anything goes” as according to some strict postmodernist), these are inevitably going to influence the law. Although the manifestations have drastically changed, a belief in the Judeo-Christian God and Christ has generally been a very important part of culture in the United States. Speaking ideally, those elected speak for the people and represent their interests. So if the vast majority of their constituents hold a certain belief, it should not be too surprising when that belief makes its way into law. Then again, this goes back to that people are people and in far too many cases will not or cannot see that many different belief/moral/life systems can and have peacefully coexisted.
Another factor limiting democracy’s true progress fairly unique to the United States is white privilege. Our nation has developed such that just by virtue of having skin categorized as white (though “white” as a racialized term does not refer to the color at all) said person will have many more advantages and have a much easier time achieving in life. Of course, there are many wonderful and kind “whites,” but the realties of “whiteness” are generally beyond one’s control. See: “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is“ and “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
Democracy in the United States has made some progress; however, any “progress” has almost always been accompanied with setbacks. Some scholars even argue with sound evidence that black men have basically remained enslaved to some degree (see for example, The New Jim Crow). Americans racialized as black were not allowed to be anything like free and equal with the abolition of enslavement in 1865. For another century, African Americans faced lynching, de facto enslavement for “crimes,” and segregation, for example. Today, African Americans are arrested and thrown in jail in vastly disproportional numbers compared to demographics. Something like 1 in 3 black men on any given day are “enslaved” to the criminal justice system.
Historical moments reflecting these nebulous relationships between the ideals of democracy and the reality of humanity have made an unusual number of headlines this week at state and national levels. Many of these have occurred in the past few days. These are very real and increasingly urgent issues, especially as the nation’s demographics change and as activism is revolutionized by social media. The nation has, however, always had a very intense battle over who should actually have rights and who shouldn’t.
Actions in Texas related to women’s rights and the filibuster led by Senator Wendy Davis this week provide a prime example of democracy in action and the fierce push back. Texas has shown itself to be more a theocratic-oligarchy than a democracy.
We really need to realize that when the lieutenant governor and his male colleagues discuss abortion, they are not actually talking about abortion. They are talking about controlling women and discriminating against them. Texas is anything but “pro-life” in its actually politics. One need look no further than its record of not educating children, imprisoning its citizens, executing those deemed guilty, leaving homeless people on the street, giving huge tax cuts to businesses, to name just a few.
We also know Texas is anything but pro-life because they have refused to allow women to testify. They are not speaking informed by science and medicine. Most importantly, they desire to make these decisions without allowing elected women to be heard unless they put up a fight. Texas, as shown by its history, has only really ever looked out for those rich and white, heterosexual and married with kids, and members of the Protestant branch of Christianity. Even this “elite group” is vastly undereducated. Rick Perry, for example, made mostly Cs and Ds at Texas A&M. George Bush had a C average. Why do we pick such individuals to lead us?
Additionally, no one likes abortion. Decisions related to abortions, of course, involve many complicated, highly personal questions. It is not a choice that should be made by a political body primary consisting of “rich white men” – ever. It should not be a uniform rule – ever. Women should have control over their bodies – pure and simple. Politicians should also recognize history’s lessons: Women are going to sometimes have abortions whether legal or not, and they should have safe and reasonable ways of obtaining one.
Along with over 120,000 others, I watched over 10 hours of the hearings online. I saw first hand the extremely harsh and unfair conditions female senators encountered. They were interrupted, ignored, and harassed. Those in the numerical majority clearly ignored the law and their own word. They were even caught changing the official record of when their vote took place and had to take it back. Although the guilty party/parties should face punishment, including impeachment and prison time, probably nothing will happen.
The lieutenant governor has issued at least two Facebook postings chastising the “angry mobs” present for over 13 hours. Again having watched and have read about the hearings, there were no mobs. There were only people, mainly women from what I could see, hoping to have their voice heard. It was democracy in action. They only started getting loud when the female senators were being treated so poorly.
Regardless of political ideologies, it should be clear that Senator Davis and her female colleagues were harassed. They were not advocating the “murder” of babies, only the choice for women to make the best decision for their health and life. The issue is much more complex than can be contained to a sound bite.
The Supreme Court, the one body that is supposed to be above politics and support equality and justice, has remained clearly divided along party lines. The SCOTUS’s decision to essentially strike down the Voting Rights Act, for example, is also a good example of how the SCOTUS has never been that removed from society’s general beliefs, hopes, fears, and prejudices. This is another obstacle to democracy – people are part of a given time and place and generally unable to exercise cultural relativism. The same Court, after all, at various times issued blanket rulings that said a black person, enslaved or not, could never be a citizen. The same Court condoned the confinement of thousands of Japanese-Americans in what we know now was actually only based on prejudice, not any legitimate, as they promoted it, security concern.
The SCOTUS’s voting rights decision is clearly a step backward for democracy and has already begun to have negative consequences in states, especially in the South, for those racialized as non-white. As indicated in various news outlets, this will very likely eliminate many female and non-white representatives as those in power can redraw district lines freely. How does this happen in a democracy?
The SCOTUS’s ruling against DOMA that clears the way for equal marriage, on the other hand, is clearly a step in the right direction. Interestingly, the court did not make a decision regarding California’s Proposition 8 because “it lacked jurisdiction” – like this stops them in other cases. Equal marriage should have been a non-issue in an ideal democracy. People should be able to marry and love the person of their dreams, regardless of who it is and regardless of being declared a male or female a birth. (We could have an entire conversation on how “male” and “female” are cultural constructions, the same way “race” is.) Science and history both clearly indicate that homosexuality is a natural, biological occurrence that has documented existence in all species (including humans and even many plants) and has existed in all societies, regardless of time or place.
Discrimination directed toward LGBT individuals is also unique because we can very easily see its creation in the early 1900s. During and directly after the interwar years, we can see the specific historical moments in which churches first adopted anti-gay stances from previously not caring and actually supporting LGBT individuals. We can directly examine the rewriting of the Bible to include verses that people were told had anti-gay meanings. If people could or would be more aware of history and science, for example, equal rights could be a much simpler matter.
The United States would make a huge step if its people and leaders would stop always saying, “We’re in the greatest, richest nation the world has ever seen.” If you haven’t see it, check out this video.
We need leaders who really will represent the people and not their own interest. People care about health care, living wages, and education. Leaders need to actually lead and plan ahead for global warming and space exploration. People need room to justly criticize the government without immediately being offered a metaphoric one-way plane ticket out of the country. “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.”
We should be able to honestly tell children: “You can be anything you want to be, even President, when you grow up.”
- “The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week for Racial Justice”
- Injustice of a Different Kind: Restaurants, Servers, Tips, and YOU
- For a great and very different perspective: What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is (and you may not)
Here are some social media pictures from the past few days. Click on any one of them to enter slide show mode.
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