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Democracy in US-America

The title of this essay in an appropriation, with a tiny edit, of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840). This tiny edit is not casual, rather it shows that the USA is not a continent center of the world, as most people born and raised in this country think. The US is part of America, as many other countries from south to north. However, my goal here is not to discuss this issue that, somehow, reveals the US imperialism and the belief in its manifest density that is in the practices of its political and corporate leaders and in its people’s collective unconscious. I want to discuss some of my impressions of democracy in US-America after a few years of living here and a few days before a presidential election, in which I have heard people saying that the future of democracy is on the ballot.

Tocqueville was supported by French Monarchy to come to the newly created independent nation to observe its democratic experiment. Tocqueville spent a few months traveling and talking to people to the United States of America in 1831. As a result of his observations and studies, he published this great two-volume book about the democratic experiment in the “new world.” In the last chapter of the first volume Tocqueville wrote:

I don’t image that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still grater in the United States than elsewhere. An isolated individual may surmount the prejudices of religion, of his country, or of race, and if this individual is a king he may effect surprising changes in society; but a whole people cannot rise, as it were, above itself. A despot who should subject the Americans and their former slaves to the same yoke, might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain (p. 769).

Tocqueville realized that racism against black people, then enslaved by white European descendants, was at the base of the US experiment of democracy, an experiment that was not for all to participate in as equal representants under the same law. An “equal footing” is still the challenge of this democracy, a country built on racism and imperialism, as affirmed by Cornel West: “The most painful truth in the making of America – a truth that shatters all pretensions to innocence and undercuts all efforts of denial – is that the enslavement of Africans and the imperial expansion over indigenous peoples and their lands were undeniable preconditions for the possibility of American democracy” (Democracy Matters, p.45).

West affirms that racism and imperialism are the two realities that shape US misleading promotion of democracy domestically and abroad. According to him, if US people want to promote democracy, they “will need to reckon finally with the depth of racism and imperialism we have inflicted not only on so many of our own people but on the people of color around the world as well” (Democracy Matters, p. 60).

Being a foreigner now for eight years living in the US, but most years of my life spent outside this land, I experienced first-hand the force of US imperialism with its interventions and market fundamentalism economic exploitation. Being here, I could see its domestic racism against black and brown people. I grew up hearing that the US has a mature democracy. Being here, I always have questioned what democracy in US-America means.

Searching for answers to my question, I decided to take a graduate class in the department of political science at the university where I work. The class is American Politics and two-thirds of this course has been completed now, a few days before the 2020 presidential election (November 03). As Tocqueville traveled around the country talking to people seeking to understand the democratic experiment in this country, I have moved around talking to people in order to have my own impressions of this democracy, not a simple experiment anymore. I don’t have Tocqueville’s ambition, nor I am funded by an imperial power. My endeavor is only a movement of epistemological curiosity. A significant part of this endeavor is to live here, talk to US citizens and residents from all races and backgrounds, read news and books, and, above all, observe. In this non-academic effort, I joined this political science class in order to have a more systematic understanding of US politics and democracy. The class began with my professor stating a bottom-line question for us to keep thinking while the course is running: Is American democracy at risk? In order to answer this question, I have to understand what US-American democracy means. After all my observations during my years in this country and two-thirds of this class, here are my impressions of democracy in US-America.

Democracy in US-America never was an experiment built on liberty and participation of all. As Cornel West said, it was built on enslaved people and imperial genocidal expansion over indigenous, perpetuated throughout its history by racism and imperialism of a nation that thinks to have a manifest destiny given by God. In this sense, it is a democracy of a privileged group of people who can vote and make decisions for the country, with no proportional representation of groups outside of (white) privilege. The reader is probably thinking I am taking too hard when I am saying it. Maybe, I am not an expert. But, even after the Reconstruction when the slavery was ended (1863), decisions and actions by a white elite to suppress the political participation of black and other minorities were taken, ranging from very explicit forms – such as the brutal regime of Jim Crow to subordinate blacks created only after a twelve-year experiment in a multiracial democracy called Reconstruction – to more sophisticated forms, such as mass incarceration, voter id requirements and many obstacles that some states, courts, and corporations create to prevent minorities and poor people from voting. To be honest, if we consider that democracy was a regime invented by the citizens of Athens, the US not only appropriated from this invention the perspective of people’s participation on public decisions, whether directly or by electing representatives, but also restricted this participation to a privileged elite. In Athens, democracy never was for all, rather for a small group of male Athenians who were considered citizens. In the US, it is for all citizens on paper, but practically is for those citizens who have conditions to overcome the obstacles created for voting, most of them white people.

I think this form of US-democracy has always been at risk; good thing, because it risks being more inclusive of new voices who have been always working for this country, but not heard. Advances toward it have been made, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as result of the fight of black people for justice, with a charismatic leader, Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed in the midst of this fight. The issue is whether or not the election of Donald Trump (and a possible reelection or his refusal of accepting election results) and the current polarization of this country have placed the US-America democracy on a path to move backward to reenforce the white privilege as the main criterium for democratic participation.

Two other elements I realized about democracy in US-America is the innocent trust that many US citizens, especially white Caucasians, have in the US democratic institutions – the presidency, the congress with two chambers, and the judiciary – and the understanding of democratic participation restricted to voting.

First, I realized this innocent trust in many conversations that I have with US citizens, but it became clear for me in the American Politics class I am taking. My professor and all of my classmates are white, citizens of the United States of America. In our discussions – which I am very hesitant to participate because I am concerned about offending them by breaking their innocence with my voice and fear their retaliation, although I think I should – I always have a feeling that they see most problems in the US society in somewhere else that does not include the US traditional institutions. I said I have a feeling because it is how their discussions land in my ears, and I can’t prove whether or not this is true (I hope it is not…). When they are discussing issues such as political inclinations, party choice, segregation, and racism, I feel that they strongly defend the US democratic institutions as the only problem they face is the manipulation by some bad people. It is similar to the argument I heard from some enthusiastic defenders of the US police in the middle of protests against police brutality: “The police are not the problem, but only a few bad cops in the institution.” This argument refuses to recognize that there is such a thing as systemic racism and structural or institutional violence. Many leaders and mayors believed this argument and thought that only diversifying police departments and appointing black and brown people as chiefs would solve the problem. It didn’t, because it is an institutional problem that even co-opts the minds of minorities when they become part of this institution. To understand this process, post-colonial authors, such as Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Mask) and Achille Mbembe (Necropolitics), are essential readings. The systemic racism of police departments translated into practice as brutality against black people is structural violence that is not only fixed by changing people. Correspondent processes of structural violence exist in the US democratic institutions, only shifting people through elections won’t change the system of oppression and marginalization of black, brown and poor people. In the awakening of protests because of the killing of George Floyd, Cornel West said to Anderson Cooper from CNN that we couldn’t forget that the Black Lives Matter movement emerged against systemic racism while the White House had a black president, a black general attorney, and a black secretary of homeland security. They couldn’t deliver their promises of a post-racist country, rather they accommodated themselves to the system. Therefore, West suggests that the system cannot reform itself.

Perhaps, this innocent trust in the US institutions is part of the US people’s collective unconscious of US-American exceptionalism and manifest destiny that is in the minds of my classmates and the majority citizens of this country. Moreover, this innocent trust is present in the political science literature. One of the books I read for this class was Civil rights and the Making of the Modern American State by Megan M. Francis, a great book that addresses the role of black social movements from civil society for civil rights and justice. The author shows that most American Political Development (APD) scholars attribute the changes to guarantee equal citizenship for Afro-Americans to US institutions and international factors, with a top-down approach that ignores the role of people at the bottom. Using a bottom-up approach, Francis highlights:

Through a top-down focused narrative, APD scholars links the origins of states guaranteeing equal citizenship and representation to macro-institutional factors like the emergence of the Cold War in 1946 instead of what social movement scholars identify as the so-called watershed events such as the Bloody Sunday in Selma… [APD scholars]’s works ultimately place the determinative causal actors for changes in the civil rights to be state elites motivated by exogenous issues such as foreign policy and party” (p. 14).
She adds: “The problem with these top-down accounts of political changes is that they privilege institutions over citizen agency and thus understate the role of civil society and different forms of civic activity” (p. 15).

Even the scholarship reveals a bias towards the innocent trust in the US institutions that are working to transform the country. When something goes wrong, there is nothing to do with the institutions per se. A top-down approach ignores the voices, the actions, the struggles, and the achievements of those at the bottom. And it is those people at the top, mainly white people, who are counting the history, highlighting the achievements of the institutions that have always favored them. Another example of this bias is that one of the US presidents considered a great president by scholars and political leaders was a racist president, well known by the black people as such: “[Woodrow] Wilson’s biographers have painted him as a man of extraordinary vision, idealism, and expertise, despite of a few mishaps that are easily explained away. On the whole, Wilson is considered one of the great presidents of American Politics. However, if Wilson’s presidency is looked upon as one of the greatest, Afro-Americans and their supporters certainly hold a different opinion. On the scorecard of Afro-American civil rights, Wilson failed miserably” (p. 63-64). In his tenure, racial inequality increased and he, as many other US presidents, segregated the government with the interest of “solidify white supremacy” (p. 82).

Francis’ book presents this tendency of ignoring who is at the bottom and what comes from there, even when what was promoted from there succeeds, moving the credit to the US institutions and those who control them.

In the “acknowledgments” for her book, Francis provides a strong witness of the challenges she faced to continue her work on the intersection of law, race, and American political development. While a doctoral student at Princeton, Francis wanted to give up and abandoned her studies because she felt that the area she cared about “was marginalized in the discipline” and she was “tired of fighting others to care.” (p. xi). Thanks to a professor who supported her, Francis didn’t give up. But the feeling she described reveals a reality that I also felt during my political science class about her book. It was the one that my classmates engaged in the least, the one they cared about less and the discussion lined towards defending the innocence of the US democratic institutions and their greatness. The voices and struggles of those presented by Megan M. Francis were not enough to show them that the institutions don’t reform itself and structural violence is real.

Second, democratic participation here seems to be understood as a restrict act of casting a ballot. This is a key element of democracy, but it can’t be restricted to it, ignoring that many people are not participating in goods that democracy can create, such as public goods and people’s flourishing. This narrow view of democracy makes sense in the cultural atmosphere and worldview of the US, a liberal democratic society that tends to place the reason for a people’s suffering because of poverty on the shoulders of the individual, with no accountability to the responsibility to the State and the economic system. In this perspective, one foreigner, like me, can understand when a top Trump adviser and son-in-law affirmed in an interview that Afro-Americans did not want to succeed in their lives. Therefore, any socioeconomic struggle they face is only a result of their individual failure. If they work hard enough, they will succeed as Jered Kushner, who was a child of rich parents, went to a top university at the same time that his rich family donated a huge amount of money, and married an heiress of Trump’s family. This is the lie of a liberal democracy built on the promises of a market-driven economy of prosperity grounded on a culture of meritocracy for individual’s development. Or in Cornel West’s words: “Free-market fundamentalism has for so long been the precondition of American Democracy that we have rendered it sacred–an unexamined fetish that we worship” (Democracy Matters, p. 41). Studies in economics, such as the one led by Thomas Piketty, show that income and wealth have never been as concentrated in the hands of a few families as today, creating only one guaranteed path to prosperity, being born in a wealthy family, such as Mr. Kushner and his wife.

I want to end this essay with an expanded view of democracy. For this, I discuss the perspective presented by a Brazilian political philosopher Marilena Chaui in her essay Democracy: The Creation of Rights. Chaui discusses two forms of modern democracies: liberal democracy, the one present in the USA, and social democracy. Considering democracy as a political regime that legitimates discussion and conflict for the creation of rights, Chaui examines the neoliberal political economy and obstacles that it creates for the realization of an idea of democracy as creation of rights for citizens. Chaui begins her essay with the origins of politics in Greece and Rome, presetting their ideas of democracy and republic. She highlights Aristotle’s idea of politics and his division between politké and oikonomía. Then she presents Machiavelli as the father of modern politics. In her method of discussing classical philosophers, Chaiu wants to provide a basis for her division of two forms of democracy. First, liberal democracy is presented as the regime of law and order to guarantee individual liberties. Freedom is understood as free economic competition and political competition between parties in free elections. In this version, democracy is seen as an effective political regime. Second, social democracy begins with the republican principle of distinction between public and private. In the public space, people’s power is sovereign, that is exercised through laws, public institutions and the State. This is complemented by a government that is the delegation of power through elections for some people to be responsible for leading the res – publica. This version is grounded on conflicts in order to create rights to citizens and not only guarantee individual liberties. At the end, Chaui argues that the neoliberal economy creates obstacles for the development of the social democracy by destroying the idea of democracy as a space of creation and conservation of rights. Hence, the neoliberalism suggests that the State leaves the economy alone, deregulating it. Moreover, the State should stop acting as the provider of social rights, such as education and health care, goods that will be also under the free market logic.

Marilian Chaui’s perspective expands the ideal of democracy dominant in the Western Hemisphere, following the model of US democracy, that is, the liberal democracy as the most successful experience of modern democracy. This conception of democracy is tied to capitalism and its principle of free economic competition as one of the most important tools to generate capital. This union between liberal democracy and capitalism has created benefits for the citizens of those countries at the center of the world, such as the USA. Working conditions were improved and access to goods became possible. However, exploitation was exported to those countries at the periphery of the capital, where exploitation of the workers and lack of access to goods takes place. In addition, even in the economically rich US, the access to public goods and improvements of living conditions have not been for all citizens. Racism and segregation have excluded minorities from accessing public goods, though systemic racism in the US institutions in a democracy tied with a free market-driven fundamentalism.

Moving beyond this idea of liberal democracy dependent on a neoliberal economy, Chaui suggests an idea of democracy in its social form, in which the participation goes beyond elections to include the conflict between government and citizens as a legitimate way to create rights. Conflict is not anything related to violence, but citizens that actively show and demand from their government what they want and need, such as the protests led by BLM movement that demands racial equality, and a government that engages in these demands, dialoguing with its citizens to respond to them by creating rights.

According to Cornel West, questioning is a constitutive part of a healthy democracy. By questioning, originated in the Socratic tradition (Democracy Matters, p. 16), citizens become able to participate in a democratic government beyond only casting a ballot during elections. A vote is not a free pass for a person elected for a public office, but rather the first step to have a democracy. My impression is that democracy in US-America limits its focus on this first step, creating a collective imagination that elections and institutions are able to lead the country toward the capitalist prosperity and self-reform when needed. As we saw above, even this first step is problematic, because all the attempts to prevent black, brown and poor people from casting their votes. In addition, the bond that US-American democracy has with the capitalist economy and imperialism creates barriers for an expansion of democratic participation to include accessing to public goods and rights necessary for people’s flourishing, equity, and justice.

This essay about my impression on democracy in US-America turned out to be bigger than I thought, but it is far from being a two-volume book like Tocqueville’s. I began with a quote from this monumental work, which he didn’t believe that whites and blacks “will ever live in any country upon an equal footing” and “the difficulty to be still grater in the United States then elsewhere”. 180 years after this book, I am more hopeful than Tocqueville because some progress has been made. But democracy in US-America is marked by the domination of a group upon another, divided by racial segregation between white privileged and institutional forms of marginalization.

The 2020 presidential election is in a few days and the questions whether the future of democracy is on the ballot or US-American democracy is at risk are not a virtual-rhetorical questioning. They are real and always have been the questions about democracy in US-America because this democratic experience has never been an experience of full participation in voting nor in rights that a democratic government can create, once people had been systematically excluded from both participations since its origin in 1776. The choice is whether US citizens will make a choice to move forward or backward, but this choice is not simply made when one casts a vote, this is only the first step.

*Alexandre A. Martins is an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, EUA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics and bioethics, such as Covid-19, Política e Fé: Bioética em diálogo com a realidade enlouquecida(Gênio Criador, 2020); The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)

References mentioned in the essay:

Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Waiheke Island: Floating Press, 2009 (original published in 1835).

Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, Penguin Books: New York, 2004.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press, 2008 (original published in 1952).

Marilena Chaui, “Democracia: Criação de Direitos” Síntese 45, no. 143 (Sept/Dec 2018): 409-422.

Megan Ming Francis, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2014.

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