Is Our American Democracy Unfurling or Unraveling?

January 6, 2021 is a date that will be remembered in American history. This will be the case because of the storming of the halls of Congress by a mob of insurrectionists intent on impeding the democratic process.

January 6, 2011 will not be remembered. But there was something that happened in Congress then as well which tells us something about the nature of our American democracy.

On that date, near the outset of the newly assembled 112th Congress, members of the House of Representatives read the Constitution in “full” on the House floor. That reading was precipitated by the Republicans who, with the help of the Tea Party movement, had gained the majority in Congress with 87 new lawmakers.

Even though the reason for the reading was driven by Republicans, many Democratic representatives participated in the process. They included new Arizona representative Gabby Giffords and civil rights icon and Georgia representative John Lewis.

What the reading did not include — even though Democrats had requested it — was the reading of passages that had been superseded by amendments. This meant there was no reference on the House floor to the “three-fifths” clause in the section of Article I, which made slaves three-fifths of a person for taxation and apportionment purposes. It excluded entirely the reading of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution which imposed prohibition in the U.S. from 1919 to 1933.

It also did not allow reviewing the original language in the nine parts of the Constitution that were changed over time, such as who had had the right to vote (originally only white males over 21 years of age) and the election of senators by state legislatures.

While not reading superseded passages or changed parts may seem insignificant, it was not. As we stated in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, “This is because it misrepresents history and understates the passage of time required and extreme difficulty in addressing those pivot points that changed the Constitution.”

As examples of that time and difficulty, consider the fact that women did not get the right to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 — 130 years after ratification of the Constitution. And African Americans did not get the unimpeded right until paying the poll tax was eliminated as a requirement to vote by the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964 — 174 years after ratification.

This illustrates that our American democracy is a complex and slowly changing tapestry. That tapestry is not, and has never been, red, white, and blue.

At the beginning, the democracy tapestry was white (and belonged only to males). Through the years and an evolutionary process made possible by the framework provided by the Founding Fathers (mothers were notably absent) and the tireless efforts of immigrants of all colors and persuasions, the democracy tapestry has become more multihued and multicultural and has unfurled for a broader and more egalitarian embrace.

In 2022, this transformation of the tapestry and the very concept of democracy itself is becoming a divisive one. Recent polls and new books suggest that unless this situation is addressed in the near future our American democracy may unravel rather than unfurl.

In August, there were a trio of polls that yielded nothing but bad news regarding the future of our American democracy.

  • An NBC News Poll conducted by Hart Research found that 21% of the registered voters surveyed felt “threats to democracy” was the most important issue facing the country today. Cost of living was ranked first by 16% and jobs and the economy were ranked first by 14% of the respondents.
  • A CBS News Poll conducted by YouGov disclosed that 72% of the respondents surveyed thought that democracy today is “threatened” and not “secure”. Both Republicans and Democrats put “influence of money” at the top of their lists as a “major threat,” with identical ratings of 86%. The three other major threats in order cited by Republicans were: government has too much power (82%); people voting illegally (76%); most people don’t have a say (73%). The three other major threats, in order cited by the Democrats were: attempts to overturn elections (84%); potential for political violence (80%); most people don’t have a say (59%).
  • A Quinnipiac University Poll found that 67% of all those surveyed said that “democracy is in danger of collapsing: with an identical 69% of Democrats and Republicans and 66% of the independents surveyed feeling this way. The overall rating of 67% was up 9 points from January.

As the foregoing summary suggests, in this extremely divided nation, Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing — that our democracy is in trouble. They do not agree, however, on what constitutes an effective democracy or the reasons for its current precarious state.

Thomas B. Edsall explored this ideological and political schism in his September 7 column for the New York Times, which opens “What is democracy? It depends on where you stand.” As usual, Edsall provides a range of thoughtful insights from the writings of, and his communications with, academics.

The three perspectives that stood out for us in Edsall’s column were commentary based upon: Jacob Gumbach’s book Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics; Suthan Krishnarajan’s paper, “Rationalizing Democracy: The Perceptual Bias and (Un) Democratic Behavior;” and Gregory Shufeldt and Patrick Flavin’s paper, “Citizens’ Perceptions of the Quality of Democracy in the American States.”

  • Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, has developed a State Democracy Index (Index) using measures such as the level of gerrymandering and ease of voting. He used the Index to compare trends in states from 2000 to 2018 and discovered, according to Edsall, that “While in 2000, there was hardly any difference between the states, by 2018 Republican controlled states had fallen sharply on the index, while both Democratic and divided states moved in a modestly progressive direction.”
  • Krisharajan, a political scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, conducted survey research for YouGov in October and November 2020 with a political spectrum of respondents to determine how they reacted as to whether hypothetical behaviors and policies of politicians were democratic or undemocratic in nature. In his paper, Krishararan writes:

- The results consistently demonstrate that many people rationalize their perceptions of democracy.

- Importantly, democratic rationalization is consistent across the political spectrum from left to right, being equally strong among right-wing and left-wing citizens.

- Left-wing respondents perceive undemocratic left-wing proposals as more democratic than, or equally democratic, as regular right-wing proposals. Conversely, when right-wing respondents consider undemocratic right-wing proposals to be more democratic than, or as democratic, as regular left-wing proposals. (Regular = democratic)

  • Shufeldt and Flavin are also political scientists. Through their research they found, according to Edsall, that “the single most important factor in voters’ perception of the level of democracy in their state is whether their party is in control.” In their paper, they assert, “Simply stated, citizens’ perception of democratic performance in their state do not seem to be linked to an objective measure of performance in any discernible way.”

Based upon the foregoing, we would conclude that how one defines what democracy is and means not only depends on “where you stand.” It also depends on where you live, who you are, and whether your party rules. These are ominous signals that our democracy is unraveling rather than unfurling.

Don Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, provides ammunition to support the unraveling theory. In an email included in Thomas Edsall’s democracy column, Haider-Markel observes, “Since the 1990’s we have been reversing our steps toward multicultural democracy.” He goes on to state that these steps backward “…are occurring in the states and often do represent the interest of the majority, especially the white majority.”

Given this resistance, can the backward momentum be reversed and the progress toward a multicultural and fairer democracy moved forward? Two new books address this question: Yascha Mounk’s The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure and Justin Gest’s Majority Minority. Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University discusses these books and shares her own thoughts in the review essay , “How Democracies Live: The Long Struggle for Equality Amid Diversity,” in the September-October centennial issue of Foreign Affairs.

Professor Allen opens her essay by declaring, “This is not a fire drill. The U.S. political system is really burning.” Later in her introduction, she states:

Now, one of the biggest challenges is how to transition from past and present demographic patterns in which most Americans have identified as white to a stable multicultural democracy in which no single ethnic or ethno-religious subgroup is in the majority — and in which no group dominates.

Allen goes on to opine: “If it wants to stay democratic, the United States must transition to full power-sharing across all segments of society, not just incorporate foreign-born residents and their children.”

After commenting on some shortcomings in Mounk’s and Gest’s analysis, she concludes that in their books they both “offer valuable prescriptions that can help everyone.” Some of those prescriptions she cites include:

  • Gest calling on leaders to use “connectedness as a criterion of governance.” They should ask three related questions when making decisions: (1) will their actions “reinforce or break down social boundaries; (2) can the decisions be adjusted to strengthen the sense of connection among people; and (3) will their actions lead people to “trust this institution more and participate in its efforts.”
  • Mounk writing, “The best thing you can do to advance the lived reality of a thriving diverse democracy is to get out of your own bubble. Seek out opportunities to build bridges to members of other groups.”
  • Mounk advocating real institutional change, such as implementing ranked choice voting and ending gerrymandering.
  • Gest advising political leaders to avoid “rhetoric-induced panic” and to develop strategies of messaging to “construct unifying narratives about the nation and its identity.”
  • Mounk arguing that the advocates of diverse democracies should embrace tight control over borders because “There appears to be a tight empirical link between border enforcement and public views of immigration.”

Allen closes the review essay by offering her own solutions, drawing upon 31 recommendations from a democracy commission that she co-chaired, which was created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. These recommendations included transitioning to ranked choice voting; multi-member congressional districts; increasing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives; establishing term limits for the Supreme Court; creating a system of universal national service for young Americans; and redistributing advertising revenue from large technology companies to support local journalism.

The proposals of Allen, Gest, and Mounk, if implemented, would eventually advance the cause of multicultural democracy and promote the unfurling of our democracy nationally. The problem is that their proposals do not confront the unraveling of our democracy, which has been going on for some time.

As outlined in this piece, two of the principal reasons for that unraveling are states’ rights and the state of mind of many Americans. We discussed those reasons in two earlier blogs.

In “The Island States of America”, posted in January of this year, we observed,

In these Island States, states’ rights dominate and the country itself is increasingly balkanized. The U.S. Constitution provided the basis for the elevation and supremacy of states’ rights. The Trump administration took advantage of this in order to reverse-engineer the nation.

In “The Enemy of the U.S. Democracy is Us”, posted in 2019, we wrote;

A strong and thriving democracy depends on numerous factors. The primary ones include civic knowledge, a belief in and commitment to a representative democracy, and trust in our governmental institutions and each other as citizens. Sadly, the citizenry of the United States does not score well on any of those factors. In fact, our grades on all of them fall in the failing range.

The unraveling is serious and threatening the very existence of this fragile crucible called the American democracy. We believe it can be reversed though. In a blog posted in July, we identified the following three critical ingredients that are necessary to stop the unraveling:

  • A national leader with a compelling vision and cross-cutting appeal and support.
  • 21st century citizens who are American patriots and community builders.
  • A unity agenda around which citizens can rally.

Those were our thoughts earlier. They remain our thoughts now as the midterm elections approach next month.

Those elections will not be determinative for the future of American democracy. They will, however, be directional and indicative of the level of effort that will be required of those 21st century citizens willing to commit to the cause of ensuring that the tapestry of our democracy unfurls to become more multihued, multicultural, and egalitarian rather than continuing to unravel.

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.

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Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.