Anshul Barnwal | Dartmouth College
The United States is widely hailed as the most successful democracy in the world, an exemplar of the idea of government by its citizens. Since being founded on the idea of “we the people,” America has been touted as a symbol of political fairness and democratic representation, one where each individual has political sway. However, the idea that American government truly represents the will of the people has always been and continues to be a deception.
The idea that America was a representative democracy at its founding is patently ridiculous. Until 1919, when the 19th amendment was passed, only white men could vote, and until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, minorities were denied real voting rights. Thus, until those date at the very least, the United States was overtly a democracy for white people only and offered women and then people of color no opportunity to play a role in government or pass policy that benefitted them. Until then, minorities were subject to intimidation or threats if they attempted to vote, which effectively prevented them from exercising political power, meaning that the fraction of individuals who were white men largely determined what happened to all of America. This disturbing racial hierarchy was directly responsible for slavery, segregation, Japanese internment, and more, as having a power structure that did not consider minorities was crucial in their oppression.
Over time, public views changed and exclusion became less overtly acceptable, so voter suppression shifted to more covert, insidious trends like gerrymandering and voter ID laws. Gerrymandering essentially consists of legislators drawing district lines in ways that augment or reduce the influence of specific voting groups, while voter ID laws have been found to suppress voters across racial lines. Indeed, the most egregious of these cases is North Carolina, where the hyper-partisan election committee has openly admitted to trying to manipulate elections in favor of Republicans with redistricting and voter ID laws. This has led to a Republican supermajority that puts veto-proof coalitions behind every bill that party leaders desire, destroying separation of powers and removing power from the people. The Electoral Integrity Project, an organization led by Harvard professor Pippa Norris that publishes what is widely considered the best existing quantification of democracy, gives North Carolina an electoral integrity score so abysmally low that it is on par with failed states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone. This trend is prevalent far outside North Carolina, as overall, the United States has the lowest electoral score of any Western democracy.
In addition to politically subtle voter suppression like gerrymandering, the American prison system systematically disenfranchises people from voting. In numerous states, but most notably Virginia, where 1 in 5 African Americans cannot vote, legislators have passed policy barring felons from the ballot, which has resulted in nearly 6 million people plucked from the voting rolls. Not only does America have the largest prison population in the world, and one where thousands of innocent people are falsely accused and locked up, but even those who have served their time are forced to live as second-class citizens for the rest of their lives even for minor crimes. A democracy where substantial portions of the population cannot vote is no democracy at all.
Finally, even regardless of voting rights, policy is no longer representative of what people desire; instead, politicians cater to special interests and campaign donors. Democracy is predicated on the idea that politicians are responsible to the people because the people are their constituents, but in reality, it is no longer the opinion of the people that matters in elections, it is donors. Politicians need money to run campaigns, to run advertisements and rallies, and to speak to the American public. If one politician has substantially more money than their opponent, they can easily drown out the other’s voice by purchasing more and more advertisements and media coverage, to the point where numerous studies have found that money is the most important factor in determining who wins an election; the candidate who spends more money wins 91 percent of the time. Of course, once politicians are in office, they do not forget the donors who made their win possible, and donors continue to hold sway in policymaking. So much sway, in fact, that professors from Princeton and Northwestern University found that donor opinion had a near direct correlation with public policy enactments, while the correlation between policy and public opinion was near zero.
The history of American democracy has been plagued by discrimination and voter suppression, both overt and insidious. From explicitly barring minorities from voting to more subtle trends like gerrymandering and corporate influence, American democracy has never truly represented the will of the people, and acknowledging those systemic constraints is the first step to promoting a truly equitable and just system for all.