Defending Democracy Will Mean Working Locally for the Common GoodRoundup
tags: democracy, mutual aid, localism
Nell Irvin Painter is the author of The History of White People.
When I think of the fate of American democracy in 2050, I can’t help showing my roots as a historian, but at the same time I’m not able to look past the behemoth overshadowing our future as humans: global warming and its attendant climate disasters. The treatment of Indigenous Americans, a series of assaults and democratic failures, has contributed to our climate’s endangerment. Had Indigenous Americans been able to influence the nature of democracy in this country, we may well have avoided the excessive development of and reliance on fossil fuels that imperil the environment today. Before the lost role of Indigenous Americans in the American environment was recognized, I remember mid–twentieth-century visions of the future that imagined superhighways to everywhere and cars that could fly. Highways and cars looked better before the cost of those highways to people whose homes and businesses were demolished was widely known, as it is more likely to be now. We’re no longer able to regard the future as myopically as we did before the horrors of climate change became obvious and the disasters of Trump-time prompted fears for the future of American democracy. So when this magazine asks whether continued union is really possible, I hear dread. I hear it stopping short of what comes next, the scary phrase “civil war.”
I know people who fear civil war as ultimate disaster. Not me. I look back at the Civil War of 1861–1865, which killed at least 620,000 combatants, as a human calamity. But death is not the Civil War’s entire meaning. The Civil War got rid of slavery, and war was probably the only means of ending the crimes of enslavement. The Civil War also added three Amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—to the United States Constitution, thereby improving an American democracy that definitely needed improvement. American democracy, even though further improved since the mid–nineteenth century, can still stand improvement, so long as Republicans can lose the popular vote but still hold the presidency and appoint a majority of justices to the Supreme Court. The resulting Republican Supreme Court is about to finish off one of the twentieth century’s signal democratic improvements: the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Nonetheless, at no point can we look backward to a time when U.S. democracy was more robust or complete than it is now, threatened though it may be by the kinds of armed attacks and election denial not seen since the nineteenth century.
In the nearly two years since the January 6, 2021, assault on the United States Capitol, an overwhelmingly white riot, Republicans have solidified their embrace of the assault, just as they embrace former President Donald Trump’s profoundly anti-democratic lies about a “stolen election.” It’s as though Republicans were bent on reminding us of their ever more obvious rejection of democracy’s crucial symbol and central act: voting.
In November 2020, millions of Americans voted, with images widely broadcast of voters, especially voters of color, standing in long lines in order to do so. In Georgia, the contest for U.S. senator was between a Trump-endorsed white Republican and Raphael Warnock, a Black Democrat allied with Stacey Abrams’s New Georgia Project for voting rights. The right to vote is closely associated with the Democratic Party, and voting rights are widely considered a Black, not a white, issue, even though universal suffrage is not supposed to be limited by color.
As long as we have a party of Republicans perceived as white and a party of Democrats perceived as Black, as we do now, politicized versions of race remain a threat to American democracy, especially given the well-armed and fanatically loyal nature of the Republican base. I can easily envision more anti-democratic actions from Republicans to come in the near future, for their hold on state, local, and national offices seems secure for now. It is also possible that massive climate-disaster induced migration will encourage the kind of anti-democratic responses that have occurred in Sweden (see the success of the Sweden Democrats) and eastern Germany (see the success of the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD). At the same time, I see important countervailing tendencies in the United States that by 2050 could very well make this country’s democracy stronger than it is now.
I take my cues from Heather McGhee’s revealing 2021 book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Starting from the swimming pools that twentieth-century racist localities preferred to fill in rather than desegregate, McGhee reminds us that paved-over swimming pools penalized everyone, not just aspiring swimmers who were Black. Those bigoted actions deprived “the sum of us” access to a public good. In more recent years, McGhee finds something new, a recognition of that loss. She tells of people who have done something that seems hard in our racialized public sphere: overcome racial barriers to work locally toward results that benefit “us all.”
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