Democracy surviving in Trump’s America

Opinion: Democracy requires engaged citizenship: Not engagement driven by fear and reaction, writes Dr Paul Michel Taillon.

The US: "a great but imperfect nation" says Dr Paul Michel Taillon.
The US: "a great but imperfect nation" says Dr Paul Michel Taillon.

The results of the 2018 midterm elections are in. The Democratic Party has taken control of the House of Representatives. Historically, in one sense, there is nothing new here. After all, the party of the sitting president typically loses seats in the House during midterm elections.

But these are not typical times. Indeed, over the past two years the US Congress has proven largely unwilling or unable to fulfil its constitutional role as a check on the power of the Executive branch, which has been under Republican control since 2016.

Now, even though the Republican Party extended its control of the Senate, the House can begin to act as a brake on the Executive, which has been occupied by a president who has shown little regard for the rule of law and who has polarised an already deeply divided nation.

The Democrats achieved this outcome, which is probably the best they could have hoped for, despite the gerrymandering and voter suppression that the Republican opposition has carried out at state level over the past decade.

Gerrymandering, a practice dating to the early nineteenth century, is the systematic redrawing of congressional districts to favour candidates of one political party while disadvantaging the other.

Republicans in control of state legislatures did exactly this with the Redistricting Majority Project in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, recognising that the party that controls the redrawing of congressional districts (which happens every decade in tandem with the census) controls Congress.

Voter suppression in the United States is nothing new. It goes back to the years after the Civil War when southern vigilantes (the Ku Klux Klan most notably) tried to prevent newly freed and enfranchised African Americans from voting through intimidation and violence.

During the long era of American racial apartheid from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries, southern states prevented African Americans from voting through laws designed to keep them from the polls and racial terrorism.

Currently, 77 million eligible Americans are missing from the nation’s voting rolls, according to a new study by Emory University historian, Carol Anderson. The majority of these people are racial minorities and people of low income.

Voter suppression is not necessarily the physical blocking of a person from the polls. It may take the form of measures that simply make registering to vote more difficult. These sorts of measures have arisen at the state level in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 weakening of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v Holder).

Currently, 77 million eligible Americans are missing from the nation’s voting rolls...The majority of these people are racial minorities and people of low income.

According to Anderson, the decision allows districts with histories of racial discrimination to change voting requirements without approval from the Department of Justice. The result: a raft of new state-level laws restricting voting and a corresponding drop in black voter turnout.

Republican state legislators passing these laws justified them as measures to control fraudulent voting, despite a 2017 presidential commission and numerous studies that found that actual voter fraud is virtually non-existent.

As an American living and teaching United States history in New Zealand, I find the Democrats’ House majority—including the diversity of those newly elected representatives—heartening. But the challenges to democracy, not to mention the polarised electorate and the behaviour of the current president (that’s another story), are deeply distressing.

In my introductory survey of US history from the American Revolution to the present I talk about freedom. Together, my students and I explore how Americans have contended with one another over the meanings of the ideals of equality, opportunity, justice central to freedom in the US.

We think about the US as a great but imperfect nation, from which students around the world can learn a great deal (that goes for Americans, too). If there is one takeaway from the course, it is the fact that democracy is and always will be a work in progress.

The midterm elections, with the highest voter turnout in 50 years despite gerrymandering and voter suppression, as does the long sweep of US history, demonstrate this truism.

But to work, democracy requires engaged citizenship. Not engagement driven by fear and reaction, but engagement informed by education and characterised by slow thinking and evidence-based dialogue.

This is a lesson I hope my students take away from my teaching. I hope it is a lesson we can take away from these US midterm elections.

Dr Paul Michel Taillon is a senior lecturer in US History at the University of Auckland. An American himself, Dr Taillon teaches a course on the Rise and Fall of the USA.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Democracy surviving in Trump’s America published on 12 November 2018.