The whole American franchise – our experiment in human self government – rests upon one thing: the vote. That’s where the self-government starts. If you screw with the vote, you’re screwing with the whole concept of self-government. If you stop some people from voting because of their race or creed in favor of others (because of their race or creed), you’ve veered away from democracy entirely. Instead of trying to win those votes via the retail politics “marketplace of ideas”, you’re blowing up the marketplace. Though America sold itself as a diverse democracy, it didn’t actually check off the necessary boxes to BE that thing until 1965 when we passed the Voting Rights Act which (finally!) put teeth into the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution and made it practical (a mere 95 years being ratified!) White Americans have always had the luxury of taking their right to vote for granted. Well, white, MALE Americans, that is… We need to look our origin story squarely in the face and allow for the fact that the white, Christian, land-owning MEN who founded America – while having a brilliant idea (self-government), got some of it terribly, terribly wrong.
The white, Christian, land-owning men who composed America’s founding documents were not perfect. They made mistakes as all humans do. They knew that the Constitution they’d fought over was imperfect. They built mechanisms for revision and renewal into the system they’d invented. The Constitution could be amended. In their minds, remember, no one was going to be a full time politician. Our founders envisioned citizens going to DC and spending a few years doing their civic duty before returning to their private lives while new citizens stepped forwards. Power, apparently, was more of an aphrodisiac than our founders anticipated. Hey, like I said – they weren’t perfect.
An even better example of how imperfect our founders were? They wrote “All men are created equal” but didn’t mean it. Well, they meant it in a way: white, Christian, land-owning men are equal.
The best example of all that our founders screwed up a great idea by compromising with a terrible idea? They cut a deal with slavery. In their defense, they found themselves between a rock and a hard place. If the Constitution had outlawed slavery, the Southern economy would have collapsed immediately because it was based almost entirely on stolen labor. The South relied on paying zero for all the intense labor it took to produce its three principle cash crops: tobacco, sugar cane and cotton. The whole point of making slaves do that work is that the slave masters and plantation owners got the work product for free – minus whatever it cost to house, clothe and feed their slaves (the cost of doing business). If slavery had never been on the table – and the South had been forced by circumstances to pay a fair market rate for all that labor? There wouldn’t have been a South.
Maybe there would have been a worker’s dream state…
Not only does a slave NOT get paid for the sweat of their brow, they don’t get to accumulate the wealth they’d get to accumulate because of that work. It’s a double whammy. But, we have to understand the impact this has on both sides of the equation. On one side, the white side, they get the full benefit of the American franchise – the vote plus unlimited economic potential. On the slave’s side you get to watch the American franchise work because of your free labor and lack of the vote. “If only I could get the vote,” this person thinks, “I might be able to conquer the unfair circumstances limiting me”. To the person who’s never had the rights the American experiment promised, getting those rights and keeping them are everything.
Citizenship without its benefits is not citizenship. But then, citizenship doesn’t just come with “benies”… it comes with responsibilities, too. One of those responsibilities is to see that the American franchise works the way it’s supposed to (not necessarily the way some of our racist founders drew it up). This means working constantly to see that every American eligible to vote gets the opportunity to vote. It also means that every single legitimately cast vote gets counted.
When you see your struggle through a long term lens, you expect there are going to be ups and downs. It’s a marathon v a sprint. You understand that you will win some fights and lose some – and some of those losses will hurt. But, if you gave up the struggle at every single downturn, you’d give up the struggle. That is exactly what white people do! White people have no idea what Black people and brown people and Asian people and LGBTQ people and everyone not white, Christian and male have had to endure from white people just to get where they are. Non-white people are never fighting other non-white people to get the rights due them. We’re always fighting WHITE PEOPLE.
Racist white America understands the American franchise as their white birthright. They think their whiteness is what makes America exceptional. They couldn’t be more wrong. James Madison insisted we put “E Pluribus Unum” on our Great Seal. Madison had a complicated relationship w slavery; while he opposed it, he also compromised with it constantly. But, he did understand that America’s greatness – its real potential – lay in its diversity. “Out of many, one”. That is American Exceptionalism.
The American ideal is worth fighting for – not the way the founders did it (by getting it wrong because “racism”) – but the way the ideal has been maintained in the Black American imagination. Black women especially have borne the torch of this country’s democratic greatness even as they bore the brunt of its most racist cruelty. You can practically hear the American Ideal beating inside magnificent American patriots like Kamala Harris, Stacy Abrams, Val Dennings and Maxine Waters (among others). In their entire lives they have never taken a single one of their rights for granted because, unlike with white Americans, Black Americans have always known that their rights could be taken away just like that. As they have been.
Having to fight for a thing makes it precious. Never having to fight for a thing causes one to take it for granted. That’s why our news media approaches the struggle for civil rights and for the vote with such painful cynicism. It’s their whiteness shining through. The instant Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin made it clear they think a racist parliamentarian device – the filibuster – is more important that the vote, they expressed 1) their racism, 2) their corruption and 3) their whiteness. When the press pointed at those obstacles as insurmountable for the Democrats and proof that what they wanted could NEVER work, they were expressing THEIR whiteness – and their perspective-free inclination to give up at the slightest sign of resistance.
If there had not been a lot of money riding on American independence – “taxation without representation” is, first, a question of what one’s money buys in a political system – it’s possible America would never have happened. Independence didn’t just mean freedom to Americans, it meant the potential to acquire great wealth.
Of course, if you see other Americans through a lens of slavery (or just plain Republican racism), you’re terrified of those other Americans acquiring wealth and political power that comes with accumulated wealth. You dream of white hegemony. Of white people having all the political power and most of the money. That is a dead end street. The America white supremacists dream of isn’t a dynamic, world-beating country that can innovate its way out of any problem facing it. Conservatism fears innovation because innovation spurs change – and change is anathema to conservatives (who want to CONSERVE not so much what is, but what WAS). The America that racist white people want is NOT America.
It is however a first rate shithole country.