I recently attended an event hosted by the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) program around Anxieties of Democracy. The event focused on democratic exclusion – places where citizens are ostensibly living in democratic states yet systematically excluded from power. But this conversation was not concerned with developing countries or citizens living under undemocratic regimes. This conversation was about the United States.
As an American I have found myself both fascinated and horrified with the upcoming US presidential election. The race for party nominations was an exhilarating process, with dark horse Bernie Sanders challenging the Clinton campaign over fundamental aspects of the Democratic platform. On the Republican side, the aggressive rhetoric and murky political platform of Donald Trump forced many of the other presumptive nominees to clarify their positions on several sensitive issues in the GOP that have long been overlooked such as white supremacy and immigration. This was occurring, of course, within the context of increasingly publicized policy brutality and the corollary momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. We were beginning to re-explore – perhaps even redefine – our deeply held, yet frustratingly vague, ‘American Values’.
Unfortunately, these nascent conversations ended the moment party candidates were chosen. Constructive meaningful conversations have been replaced by hateful rhetoric and muckraking that, quite frankly, have left many Americans stunned. The lofty ideals of democracy that we promote in our foreign policy are nowhere to be found. However it is not simply that these democratic ideals are being threatened, but that the democratic process itself is now in doubt.
US democracy is unique in that it is universalist in nature. This universality implies everyone is endowed equally with the same rights. Yet this notion of equal rights are the reason democracy is difficult to do. Democratic structures tend to foster exclusion because they require strong political allegiances to promote civic participation in the democratic process. These allegiances are most easily garnered through political identification or attachments to party ideologies that inevitably produce an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. One only needs to look at the othering taking place in the current election to see this point in action.
It is not just rhetoric that makes this issue of exclusion problematic in the current election landscape. Rather, these exclusionary efforts have started to creep into the mechanics of the political process itself. Our democracy is not as fair as we would like to believe. The process of voting for example has always been more difficult in the United States than other Western democracies. Yet, this current election has taken these difficulties to another level – a level that one would expect from a conflict-ridden country emerging from a civil war. Opaque and ever changing state laws mean that voters are struggling to stay informed not just on what to vote for, but on how to make sure they can vote. In 2013 a controversial Supreme Court ruling struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act allowing several states – many with histories of discrimination – to change their election laws without federal permission. This has been particularly impactful with regards to the identification states require from voters when they show up to vote. If a voter does not possess the identification required by their specific state they cannot vote – even if they have voted before, regardless of how recently the law was changed. In some cases obtaining the required ID can take hours of waiting in lines and several other forms of identification. Previously these types of laws had been denied federal approval and, in some cases, were blocked by federal court because they disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic voters.
Even if you have the right ID, it is increasingly more difficult to cast your vote if you can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. In several states early voting periods have been shortened, despite the fact that in the 2012 presidential election 34% of US votes were cast early. So if you work on election day, have inflexible work arrangements, are a senior citizen, don’t have readily access to appropriate transport, or are physically unable to attend the polling booth on election day, you may be out of luck.
Purges in voter registration are also a concern. A recent article in Rolling Stone highlighted a questionable Republican effort ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud but which appears more like an attempt to disenfranchise generally Democratic constituencies. This program, called Crosscheck, complies lists of citizens who are believed to be registered in more than one state. Effectively, this renders them eligible to be purged from the voter roles. However, the methodology of Crosscheck is deeply flawed. It fails to check middle names, distinguish between Jr. and Sr., and does not verify social security numbers. People with common names such as Smith, Garcia, or Kim are almost guaranteed to be flagged. Unsurprisingly, the demographics appearing on Crosscheck lists are disproportionately young, black, Hispanic, and Asian American voters – key Democratic constituencies. All of this means that up to one million eligible voters can be purged from the rolls before Election Day.
For those intrepid voters who are able to procure the right documentation, can make it to the polls on November 8, and manage to remain registered, there is still one last hurdle they may face– intimidation at the polls. Donald Trump recently urged his support base to monitor polling places and act vigilantly against suspected voter fraud. This is seen as a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate voters, particularly minority voters. Thankfully this appears to be more of an empty threat than a call to arms but the issue is concerning enough that the Democrats have taken the Republican National Convention to court in an attempt to block their ‘ballot security’ efforts, alleging that they amount to voter intimidation. This adds just one more obstacle for American’s trying to reach the polls.
What struck me most about this panel conversation was not that the panelists spoke about the United States the way that many academics and policy makers speak about nascent democracies, but that I wasn’t particularly surprised at their criticisms. This election is the result of years of partisan bickering that has highlighted what many of us already know, and what others are starting to realize. As a country America is so used to getting ‘our way’ that compromise, even amongst ourselves, has become difficult. We most certainly haven’t been modelling the democratic ideals we espouse to the world. The irony of our domestic elections versus our international stance is hard to miss and is something that will not quickly be forgotten by Americans or the rest of the world.