We Americans have it in our heads that we are what “democracy” looks like. Democracy has news for us: no, we’re not.
If the bottommost line there is in what sets democracies apart from other forms of government is voting — by the total number of citizens legally qualified to vote — then, historically, America has shown poorly. According to Pew Research, as of 2016, Americans were toward the bottom of the list where participation in elections is concerned. Americans used to vote in very high numbers (as a percentage). Eighty percent of eligible voters voted in the 1836 election (the first post-Andrew Jackson one where his hand-picked successor and veep Martin Van Buren pulled out a victory over the (at that point) nascent Whig Party. Until 1900, at least 70% of eligible Americans voted in every presidential election and at least 60% of us voted in off year elections. And then, a great slide begins.
I’m making a guess here. A drop off in American interest in our democracy happening right as America becomes a world power (heading into World War I) occurs at the exact same time as the Ku Klux Klan is growing in popularity? It sure sounds like a big piece of the American electorate is staying home instead of voting. We know exactly “why” those newly empowered Americans chose not to use their new power as citizens. Racism has always been at the heart of voter suppression and Republican gerrymandering. One doesn’t have to say “Democratic voter suppression” to differentiate it from Republican voter suppression because (while Democrats have been guilty of gerrymandering to gain an advantage), Democrats have never tried to suppress Republican voters. It’s simply not how any (contemporary) Democratic voter thinks; in fact, it’s entirely antithetical to what makes a Democrat a Democrat. Democrats are entirely confident in the superiority of their ideas over anything any Republican is selling. This is why modern Democrats believe in elections.
On the chart below, that’s evidenced by the presidential elections of 1932 and 1936. Franklin Roosevelt first won election as POTUS in ’32 — as the Great Depression was settling in. In ’36, FDR holds steady as the intensely progressive New Deal produces results that put Americans back to work. Then the war happens and the Greatest Generation pulls together — as the data points show. Voting lulls as the war drags on, falls off considerably after the war ends but then bounces back in 1952 because who doesn’t “like Ike”? Actually, Adlai Stevenson (the Democrat who Eisenhower defeated twice) would have been an amazing president; America has issues with smart people however. America boomed in the 1950’s. We became the engine for the world’s economy (with a tax rate that had the richest paying considerably more than they pay now (even if no one ever actually paid 91% of their earnings above $200,000).
See that sudden uptick at the end of the data set? That’s 2016. The upward trend continued. over 168 million Americans voted in election 2020. Sure, more Trump voters voted, but way, waaaaaay more Democratic voters voted, too. That trend started (to our news media’s surprise) in election 2018 when the Democratically inclined began to realize the very real existential threat Trump posed to America.
Turns out Joni Mitchell was right in her song Big Yellow Taxi: “Oh, it always seems to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. America’s voters saw the Republican Party actively trying to take away their rights (to vote, to have an abortion, to breathe clean air) and responded in the only way they could: by showing up to vote the Republican bastards out. Ah, but Republicans don’t play by rules.
While America’s founders did fear someone power mad like Donald Trump would run for office, it didn’t occur to them that such a candidate’s power madness would be stroked by his political party. Then again, America’s founders didn’t count on there being political parties in America. Shit happens, ya know?
Organized human civilization began roughly eight thousand years ago — when we transitioned from being nomadic hunter-gatherers into farmers. Agriculture demands staying in one place in order to benefit from it. But, because this stationary place with its organized food production can feed more people than wandering in search of food can, villages and then towns and cities eventually grew nearby. And, once those human collectives became bigger than an extended tribe, as historian Yuval Harari points out in his brilliant book Sapiens, humans had no choice but to invent “governing”. At its core, government is simply an organizing principle by which large groups of humans can live together without killing each other. Who governs and who’s governed. That’s the bottommost line there is.
From eight thousand years ago until 1776, with a few exceptions, humans relied on the “divine right of kings” to govern how we governed. We got it into our heads that some of us were really and truly chosen by the divine to lead (and have most of the money). This is pure bamboozlement. No one’s blood is any better than anyone else’s. No tribe’s blood is superior. The only thing about which some humans can claim any sort of superiority is the pathogens lurking inside them. White Europeans were vectors for some extremely lethal pathogens — smallpox, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases (with the possible exception of syphilis), typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis (although a form of this infection existed in South America prior to contact), and pertussis. Syphilis was the one pathogen Native Americans sent over to Europe. Europeans were especially driven by the divine right of kings because they tied their kings to their Christian faith.
But, the American experiment intrigued the Europeans. After all, we were simply the lab for an idea that the French Enlightenment had been kicking around. The idea of human beings governing themselves instead of being governed by “superiors” was radical. The big mistake the European men who founded America’s democratic government was in writing “All men are created equal” while meaning 1) only WHITE, Christian, land-owning men and 2) by meaning ONLY men. America is a fantastic idea as yet unrealized.
And that is because democracy is hard. Or, as Winston Churchill put it, “the worst form of government except for all the others”. It’s just how it is; democracy is the best of a really bad lot.
That’s WHY actually pulling off democracy is so challenging. Living in an authoritarian shithole, you can take life for granted: it’s going to suck and there’s nothing you can do about it except follow the rules, keep your nose clean and pray they never come for you. Democracy, by contrast, is a contact sport. It demands active engagement with it if it’s to work as designed. I like Australia’s approach (Australia’s participation rate is 91.89%!). Come election day in Australia, no one has to actually vote, but everyone must show up at their polling location. By law they have to show willingness to participate even if none of the candidates meet their needs.
Americans used to understand that freedom wasn’t “free”. Every one of its awesome benefits comes with a challenging obligation: you have to show up. For some people, apparently, even just that is a bridge too far.