(Commentary originally published by YES! Magazine, October 23, 2020)
A few days ago, I shared with YES! Executive Editor Zenobia Jeffries Warfield an insight that felt both fresh and important: “I’m coming to the conclusion that the United States has never been a democracy.” This insight was sparked by my reflection on the testimony of Judge Amy Coney Barrett during the Senate hearing on her nomination for the Supreme Court.
Zenobia replied, “David, you’re not alone in your conclusion; it’s a refrain I’ve heard in my immediate and extended communities most of my life.”
Zenobia and I are products of very different life experiences. She is a Black woman. I am a White man. I was raised to believe in the great American myth. She grew up with the truth closer at hand.
Our exchange reminded me of my own very human capacity for enduring fealty to myths we know to be untrue.
I’m coming to the conclusion that the United States has never been a democracy.
I also spent more than two decades in Africa, Latin America, and Asia on a mission to end poverty. In all these places, I was a regular witness to U.S. initiatives that oppressed the poor and secured the interests of the rich and powerful. And I have for years written about how corporate interests intentionally and systematically undermine democracy.
Yet despite these experiences, I still basically accepted the idea that the United States was founded as a democracy and was on a mission to democratize the world. For years, when I heard Republicans claim that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, I dismissed them for playing deceptive word games to delegitimate their political opposition.
The Senate hearings on the appointment of Barrett jolted my understanding. While Barrett evaded most questions, she was strikingly clear on one point: she is an originalist. She said that term means, “I interpret the Constitution as a law, and that I interpret its text as text, and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it. So that meaning doesn’t change over time and it is not up to me to update it or infuse my policy views into it.”
The flaws of republican government from the perspective of democracy are all too evident.
Are any amendments valid if they conflict with the intention of the original founders? Is there a connection between originalism and the distinction Republicans make between a republic and a democracy?
When the U.S. was founded, U.S. senators were not chosen by the people, but rather by their state legislatures. It was the 17th amendment that enabled the people of each state to directly elect their senators. To this day, the president and vice president are not chosen by the people, but rather by the representatives to the Electoral College.
With limited exceptions, the Americans in the new republic granted a right to vote by the individual states were White male property owners. Slavery remained legal. Native Americans were denied citizenship (until 1924). The word “democracy” never appears in the U.S. Constitution or any of its amendments, but the word “republican” does. Article 4, Section IV states, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…”
Launching the United States as an inclusive democracy following the American Revolution was never a viable option for the founders. Much of the new nation’s economy depended on the labor of enslaved Africans, and every bit of the land on which it rested was stolen from Indigenous people.
Now, consider the implications for Judge Barrett if she were consistent in her fealty to her originalist judicial philosophy. In the late 18th century, law and practice required a woman to cede control of her property to her husband at the time of marriage, and no woman had the option of becoming a lawyer, let alone a judge. The Constitution did nothing to change that status quo.
We must learn to organize as a democracy of all the people, by all the people and for all the people all the time.
So, it would seem Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s “originalism” takes a few liberties with the original intent of the framers, at least when it comes to her personal and political interests.
The flaws of republican government from the perspective of democracy are all too evident. The Electoral College has given us five presidents who lost the popular vote, two of them in the past 20 years. The Senate gives disproportionate power to a political minority from states with small populations, allowing their senators to block legislation and judicial appointments favored by the political majority. Of the three branches of government, a Supreme Court of nine unelected judges appointed for life is empowered to overturn and rewrite any law put forward by the elected members of the other two branches and to overrule decisions by elected judges in state courts.
Although we have consistently moved toward becoming more of a democracy since 1787, Republicans are right: We are not a democracy. And the Republican Party appears to be dedicated to assuring that we never become one.
By contrast, the Democratic Party has in recent years prioritized empowering women and racial minorities and moving toward more direct power by the people. But its leaders, like those of the Republican Party, are ultimately beholden to wealthy donors. Originalist members of the Supreme Court, with the Citizens United decision, have strengthened the power of such donors by giving them the right to give campaigns an unlimited amount of money.
That we are not a democracy is a harsh reality we must recognize, confront, and change—irrespective of what the founders did or did not intend.
The world of 2020 bears little resemblance to that of the newly formed nation of 13 former British colonies with a population of some 2.5 million people, mostly living on farms, whose only means of communication over long distances was via horses and sailing ships. If we are to have hope of a human future, we must together make choices consistent with the needs and opportunities available to not just a nation of 320 million, but a global population of 7.8 billion people now connected by instant electronic communication networks.
We are confronted by an existential crisis of collapsing environmental systems, social tensions born of extreme inequality, and failing institutional legitimacy. In such times of instability, many among us are prone to turn to the assurance of religious dogma, political ideology, and authoritarian demagogues. But such rigidity cannot solve our current systemic failures. Our future depends on our joining together to bring forth a new civilization that is truly democratic in ways that go far beyond periodic elections to choose among candidates offered by competing elite political factions.
Given the challenges now before us, we must learn to organize as a democracy of all the people, by all the people and for all the people all the time. Such deep democracy will require crafting a shared vision of possibility, grounded in our reality as the people of a finite, interdependent, living Earth. It will require the leadership of many millions of people possessed of a deep and shared commitment to a world that works for all.