Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how the Republicans are about to end our Democracy. I’ve had trouble with this phrasing mostly because I didn’t want it to seem as though we ever truly achieved Democracy. A better way to phrase it is that the Republicans are trying to end our attempt at Democracy, that’s probably more correct. I think as we wake up to the fact that yes “it” (fascism) can happen here we also need to address the fact that democracy has never fully happened here. We’ve come close, we’ve definitely been working on it, but we haven’t exactly gotten there. However, the thing we view as fascism, unfettered capitalism merged with a government tightly controlled by a small minority of the country, has in fact been our reality for a good chunk of our history. Sure it’s probably closer to an autocracy if you want to split hairs but in general it kind of actually did already happen here and we really shouldn’t be too surprised if something like it happens again.
So just to be clear let’s recap. We wrote a nice line about liberty and justice for all and that was good and people really liked that. In fact they really wanted to see that happen and mostly looked the other way as it remained elusive for the rest of our history. Yes I’m saying that when we had slavery we didn’t have it and when we had Jim Crow we didn’t have it. That gets us to 1965, you would be about 56 years old if you were born in 1965. So old, but not that old.
But one could argue, and one of those persons would in fact be me, that things didn’t change immediately after the voting rights act of 1965. These things take some time to kick in and while they took their time a new phenomena arose. Felonies. Yep, as Michelle Alexander pointedly points out in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, our system found another way to disenfranchise millions of black and brown and poor people from our voter rolls. Some quick stats, 5 million Americans are denied the vote because of felony drug charges, 13% of all black males are denied the vote, drug convictions have risen thirteen fold since 1980 and our prison population has increased 500%. I blame video games, specifically Grand Theft Auto.
Kidding it’s a little thing we like to call the Prison Industrial Complex. It’s just the latest example of how when our “system” is threatened by actually having a representational government our “system” kicks in to make sure that we don’t. It’s really in America’s DNA, I didn’t make that up, just look at our constitution. It may have been the intent of the founding fathers, or maybe they actually did intend life, liberty and all of that? That is the central argument that we’re not allowed to discuss. Right? We don’t talk about it very well on a national level. The contradictions are rampant, obvious, and cloaked in a fog of denial. Free country, oops slaves. Freed the slaves, oops we installed a police state to keep people from having basic American rights. New Deal, not for everyone, sorry. G.I. Bill, see previous answer.
It also works the other way. Redlining, not on you cute white families, here’s a thirty year fixed loan guaranteed by the government. Don’t worry, we’ll build a highway through someone else’s neighborhood so you can visit your mother who didn’t want to leave the city. Enjoy the lawns while we corral everyone else into the same cramped neighborhoods. Drug felonies, don’t worry we’ll make sure those get to the right people.
So until recently this “system” has been able to reinvent itself through the millions of individual actions so spread out that too many people are implicated to actually blame anyone. And also by the very nature of our political structure. Thanks to the Senate a vast swath of Americans are underrepresented and thanks to the electoral college, as we’ve seen twice in 20 years, a President can handily lose the popular vote and still win. See it’s kind of systemically bent toward a rule by a small minority of white males. Once again, original intent or was liberty the implied goal they hoped future generations would achieve? Who knows, but eventually the winners will decide.
So that brings us here. And now we have a new crisis that the “system” will have to either adapt to or be eradicated. The civil war couldn’t do it, the civil rights movement didn’t fully achieve it, so will this new more organic threat finally make it happen? The newest and arguably biggest threat to minority white rule is now the simple math equation of our shifting demographics. That’s it, that’s the thing, the whole enchilada. Everything has brought us to this moment.
And what makes this moment so difficult is that we’ve spent the past 50 years cloaking our core arguments in an invisible shield. Until the 1960’s white people could basically be openly racist, it was accepted. But once it became something you shouldn’t do in the workplace we kind of buried it. So now people don’t even have a vocabulary to talk about it. Millions of Americans deny it’s very existence. But they have to know it’s there, everyone knows on some level how things work in America, even if they can’t fully describe it. Late night shows and comedy central endlessly put the nonsense banter of people trying to articulate their angst with these men and women at the rally kind of funny mini-doc thing. And we laugh and laugh and laugh until someone gets their eye poked out with a flagpole. And then it’s not funny anymore.
So if you’re wondering why so many people are fine with the Republican’s ending our attempt at Democracy, well just look to history. Why did crowds gather at lynchings and laugh and smile for pictures. Why were so many “normal” people willing to scream and yell and spit on black children trying to go to school. Why did so many people believe Reagan when he created the image of a black welfare queen. Why did Obama trigger so many people in so many weird ways. Why did Donald Trump win the election in 2016 as he ran on openly bigotted views. And what the hell are people yelling about when they are freaking out about critical race theory. It’s because we haven’t dealt with our dysfunction. The disparity between reality and what we believe to be true is bending everyone’s minds. How can you be a Christian and attend a lynching? I’m thinking you’re telling yourself a story that has little bearing on your actual reality. Just a guess. And all of this brings mental anguish and a propensity to live in a fantasy world. Which starts to explain what we’re seeing all around us today.
Bandy X. Lee, who talks about the mental illness running rampant in America in her 2020 book Profile of a Nation: Trump’s mind, America’s soul, describes the attraction to Trump as a result of a nationwide mental health crisis she calls symbiotic narcissism. “The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence—while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure.” Lee states as she describes the magnetic attraction between Trump and his base. Although Lee mostly focuses on the economic impact of our shrinking middle class I would add into the mix what Toni Morrison and James Baldwin have said in so many ways concerning the original promise made to “white” Americans. The promise that in America, if you’re white, you’ll always be a station above those who are non-white. It is the threat of removing this original promise that is stressing so many people out. The population change, the threat of a truly inclusive democracy, the end to the only America any of us have ever known, is terrifying to a lot of people and I would argue they don’t even know why and can’t really articulate it. Have you seen these comedy central videos? The scientists will be studying these for decades, if we’re lucky. That’s why teaching the so-called CRT is so threatening. Even discussing the reality of our history, and present, is too much for many people. And now it’s coming to a point where it has to be addressed, or put down, once again.
So here it is, the central conflict of America coming to a head once more. If it’s not obvious yet It’s basically this. How do we square the concept of life, liberty and justice for all yet keep the promise to “white” Americans that they are guaranteed a better station in life. Doesn’t have to be great, doesn’t mean you’re rich, just the comfort that you will always be treated by the system in a way that certain others will not be afforded. Once you see this reality it’s impossible to unsee. It’s been central to our development as a country since day one, yet somehow cloaked, and this conflict has driven us to civil war and has made us do terrible and crazy irrational things throughout our history.
One simple example that comes to mind is from Heather McGhee’s book The Sum of Us: what racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together. One of the examples she writes about is how a large and popular swimming pool in St. Louis was ordered to be desegregated in 1949. White people refused to go to it afterward and in 1955 the city of St. Louis drained it, closed the facility and filled in the pool entirely. This happened all over the country in countless communities. Public pools were closed and private pools opened that could continue to pick and choose who had access. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for townships to close public facilities rather than operating them as integrated. The official opinion was basically that since everyone was denied the privilege it wasn’t discrimination and since you can’t know what people’s motivations are you can’t say it was racism. Spoiler alert: It was racism. Rather than integrate and let everyone enjoy the pools, the powers that be in communities across the country chose to deprive everyone of the pleasure of cooling off on a hot summer day. And like a big cherry on the top of a sundae the myth that black people don’t like to swim became a widespread misconception. See that’s how crazy this stuff makes people.
So, sometimes a banana is just a banana, as John Belushi once said, and sometimes a swimming pool is our Democracy.
It’s hard to believe that we could undo the gains that have been made because at every hard fought turn we seem to have lurched forward on the original promise of liberty for all. But we only have included as much of our population as we have because we had indeed fought and died for it. But also remember that others fought and died to deprive us of it. And when they fought to deprive others of their basic rights they didn’t view it that way. They thought they were fighting for freedom, the only freedom they knew. Just like today, on the anniversary of Jan 6th where all of the craziness we could never imagine was captured on thousands of hours of video. Videos of people breaking into the Capitol while buying into conspiracy and nonsense and losing their minds. America as they know it, as they’ve ever only known it, is once again being threatened by change. The promise that Baldwin and Morrison wrote about is once again at risk. And either the system will need to reinvent itself or this will finally be the time that the promise is broken. It’s either life liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, or the promise, it can’t be both. And if we manage to do what nothing in our history has yet fully done, break the promise, how do we manage the effect it will have on millions of people?
So when the Republicans say that the Democrats are going to end America as we know it, this is what they mean. And as worried as you may be about what the Republicans are going to do, believe me you’re not half as worried as the Republican base is. And that’s why the Republicans will have millions of people willing to let them end our attempt at Democracy. It’s really just a way to keep things as they have always been.