The True Color of Democracy

In the modern era, only one group of Americans has stood in the way of America’s slide to autocratic rule, and for policies that continue to benefit every citizen, bar none. So far, they are holding.

Stark colors. Image: New York Times 2020

More than any other graphic I’ve seen produced during this election cycle, the one above, in particular, stood out for the glaring truth that it laid bare about ourselves, as Americans. It illustrates that if not for African Americans, the United States would be at risk of losing the qualifications that make it a modern democracy, by international standards.

That is to say, by neutral third parties.

“What the hell am I talking about?”

Democracy and the World

The Democracy Index is compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) — a UK-based company. It measures the state of democracy in 167 countries — the vast majority. 75 of the nations on its list are classified as either full or flawed democracies, while the rest are labeled either hybrid democratic-authoritarian regimes, or fully authoritarian ones.

True democracies are widely understood — not just by the EIU, but by most international judiciary, human rights, advocacy and peace-keeping organizations, as well — to stipulate the precondition of certain embodied principles, in order to be considered one. EIU defines these as thriving levels of representational pluralism, civil liberties, fundamental political freedoms, political participation, an independent judiciary, and a diverse and independent media. Only 22 nations on its list qualify as full democracies, while 53 are considered flawed — or partial — ones.

Dominating the top eight spots are all five Scandinavian countries, plus Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. All of them embody the most robust forms of representational government, national investment in programs that support and uplift citizens, and civil liberties. In other words, these governments endow and empower their people with the things that will guarantee their shared prosperity.

The United States of America ranks 25th on the list, just behind Japan and South Korea, and just ahead of Malta and Estonia. Downgraded from a full democracy in 2016 for the first time, It is considered only a partial one, largely because of its questionable scores in the political participation of its people, flawed and non-representational civil liberties practices, and a generally dysfunctional government.

Nearly every European nation, with the exception of Italy, Greece and the Slavic states, rank higher than the US on the list.

Human Injustices

Separately, in 2019, Amnesty International gave the United States a failing grade on the chief basis of its human rights abuses. These included:

  • the dismantling of refugee settlement
  • the externalization of asylum process at the southern border
  • arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of asylum-seekers
  • prolonged and indefinite detention of child asylum-seekers
  • criminalization of sexual and reproductive rights
  • violence against women and girls
  • hate crimes toward the LGBTQ+ demographic
  • trials by military commissions, like those in Guantánamo
  • civilian casualties and potentially unlawful killings
  • torture and other ill-treatment
  • gun violence
  • excessive use of force
  • the continued use of the death penalty

At the ballot box, Americans — by which I mean, the white American majority (76.3% of its citizens) — continually vote down the party and policies that could conceivably begin to chip away at these moral and human rights failings, and not just return the United States to the status of a full democracy, but to advance its standing on the list.

Why care about a “stupid list”? It’s not the list that matters; it’s the mirror that the ranking provides in reflecting our behaviors, to help us see ourselves in the context of other national democratic experiments, across the globe.

And some of them are pretty phenomenal, judging by the outcomes; which is to say, the ways in which their governments shape life on the ground for their citizens.

Back home, white Americans vote repeatedly against the things that would help 46 million of its citizens — the 13.9% who live in poverty — to lift them out. They vote against infrastructure investment, in things that would modernize the nation and power it for another century, or more. They vote against investment in the educational — and thus commercial — competitiveness of its citizens, relegating them to a back seat in a global marketplace. They vote against basic human rights guarantees, as I’ve already listed. And thus, altogether, white Americans inexplicably vote against the intellectual development, the health and wellbeing of its own citizens. What they vote for, instead, is unchecked commercial greed — the consolidation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, even as many, if not a majority, of their own rank fall farther into poverty, thus exacerbating their alarming downward mobility, at the hands of a burgeoning class of super-rich.

That is, they vote against all the things that Scandinavia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, among other nations, all do for their people; and for the things against which those nations protect their citizens.

The mind reels.

Democracy’s Great Hope

And yet, just a single American demographic, more than any other, continues to advocate — through hard-won voting rights, exercised — for policies and practices that would make good on President Lincoln’s entreaty to us to act on “the better angels of our nature.” He plead his case in the 1860 inaugural presidential address, just one year before the nation made a mockery of that statement, breaking out into Civil War in order to settle the question of whether or not African Americans were full humans, and thereby entitled to the same rights as white ones, rather than just 3/5 of a human, as stipulated by the United States Constitution — Article 1, Section 2.

N.B.: Lincoln was a Republican, and ironically, his party today still largely defines themselves as “the party that Lincoln built”.

If only.

The voting bloc standing between Americans and unbridled authoritarianism — or fascism — are the African Americans. Election after election, they cast their votes the same way. And as they comprise 10% of the electorate, on average, their votes result — on rare occasion, when supported by enough white and Hispanic Americans, and smaller minorities — in a Democratic, pro-civil-liberties, pro-representational, pro-freedom/choice, pro-media, pro-fairness-and-equality, pro-asylum and anti-violence, anti-human-rights-abuse government.

You know, a democracy.

That is, the rights and programs that the EIU-leading ‘full democracies’ enjoy, in spades.

And yet: even during those infrequent terms, the three branches of government most often remain of split affiliation, thereby limiting and obstructing the potential advancement of such protections and resources as would lift the nation and its citizens, as a whole; and help it prosper.

A Remarkable Legacy

There are only two periods in modern U.S. history during which Democrats controlled all three branches of government. First, from 1937–45, President Roosevelt used that mandate to usher in his New Deal, which saw the creation of Social Security, old age and widows’ benefits, unemployment compensation, disability insurance, maximum work hours and a minimum wage. Not to mention, it put over 20 million unemployed Americans back to work, injecting $3.1 billion ($59 billion in 2020 dollars) into the economy.

During this time, the American middle class burgeoned, enjoying its greatest-ever period of growth, on the backs of which the United States became the most powerful nation in the world.

A middle class obliterated, and a 60-year inversion of wealth. Image: Pew Research 2010

The second period was from 1961–69, when JFK, then Lyndon B. Johnson after his predecessor’s assassination, used the platform he was given to sign into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination, and during which he also passed the Clean Air Act, and 1965’s Social Security Amendments, which included the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

In those two periods, the United States moved closest to a pluralistic society, representative of the people, and protective of their prosperity. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that without these two periods, the United States may not be considered a functional democracy, at all.

It is therefore the very voting bloc — white Americans — who vote against Democrats again and again, every four years, as they always have, and yet who benefit more than any other group from the provisions that were created by their perceptual adversaries; for the provisions and protections that their preferred candidates attempt to weaken or remove, each and every time they are in power.

Most clinical psychologists would call this self-sabotage.

A Black-and-Brown Silver Lining

Now look at the election that took place just last week. I think we can all agree that it represents the current temperature and thinking of the electorate. (Set aside conspiracy theories for the moment.)

Exit Poll Data. Image: New York Times 2020

Statistically, white Americans comprised 67% of all ballots cast. Black Americans constituted 13%. Hispanic/Latino votes encompassed another 13%. Asian ones just 4%. And “undeclared” or “mixed” ballots carried the balance — 4%. (The numbers are rounded.)

58% of those white Americans — a majority — voted for the Republican candidate, as they always have, in modern times. This exact group, which in fact grew between 2016’s and 2020’s election, is the driving force behind the US downgrade from a full democracy to a flawed one. That 58% comprised 41% more whites than voted for Biden’s party of inclusion (underscored by his choice of VP — female, black and Indian), and thereby voted for social programs intended to help the 51 million out of work Americans regain their footing.

Then, there are the African Americans. 87% of them voted for Biden, delivering him 11.3% of total votes. Less monolithic but still impactful, more Hispanic/Latino voters also skewed Democratic than didn’t, with 65% of them casting their ballot accordingly.

The “black and brown” vote saves democracy. Image: Anthony Fieldman 2020

Without fail, African Americans stand up, election after election, and vote for the things that simply help people. These things are incidentally what comprises a world-class democracy, in that they benefit all Americans democratically, insofar as lifting up its citizens and allowing the nation to prosper, both at home and abroad, in a global marketplace.

The engine of economic growth has always been the people who do the work; and for them to be effective, they have to be educated, trained, healthy and inspired.

Once we’ve familiarized ourselves with the actions of past governments, and the results of their policies—on which Democratic and Republican economists agree that the US has continually fared twice as well economically under Democratsthe only remaining question is: why do white Americans continue to vote against their own interests? If you’re interested, here are two takes — one mine, and one by an author whose work I particularly enjoy reading.

And so, to the extent that you benefit from the existence of any-or-all of a minimum wage, social security, affordable care, civil rights, disability insurance, clean air, worker’s compensation (Wilson), federal emergency funding and oversight (Carter), fairness and transparency in lending practices, in both housing (Truman) and finance (Roosevelt), and family and medical leave (Clinton), among other signature Democratic policies, enacted, you can thank African Americans, more than any other group, for delivering the vote that allowed these things to be born.

If you read the list above, not a single American doesn’t directly benefit from something hatched by Democrats in charge.

And yet, to beat a dead horse, not once in modern history have white Americans voted for a Democratic candidate. Not. One. Time. This statistic is astounding to me for the fact that it is resoundingly self-defeating.

So thank your stars that there are minorities in the United States. If not, we may well find ourselves living in what the rest of the world considers a hybrid democracy-autocracy, or a full-on authoritarian regime, like the ones that so many of Donald Trump’s personal heroes rule with an iron fist.

With respect to the nations led by those “fine individuals” — the leaders whom Trump has praised openly — the Philippines ranks 54th, Turkey 110th, Russia 134th, Egypt 137th, China 153rd, and North Korea dead last, at 167th, on the Democratic Index. Only the first of these squeaks into the “flawed democracy” category.

This casts the minority vote in an even more alarming light.

From the bottom of my heart, Mr. and Ms. African American, and on behalf of all Americans who benefit from your continued acts of bravery, thank you.

The true colors of democracy are black, and brown.

Image: Brendan Smialowski. Getty Images 2020

Architect | Photographer | Writer | Polyglot | Windmill Jouster | Nomade Civilisée.

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