Notes on an Exile from American Democracy

The collective political imagination of America is never more than four years. It’s doggedly tied to the presidential election cycle. As of the publishing of this, it’s only 16 days until the next presidential election. I’m not sure quite when the future-casting of American democracy got reduced to nothing more than four years, but here we are. And it’s not a good place.

While, yes, steeped in hegemonic white supremacy, the bottom line is that this nation was founded with the future in mind. From the creation of the Constitution and the mechanism for amendments—the idea that it may need to change as contexts change—or even the imperial nature of Manifest Destiny and the American Century, this nation always looked toward the future. Even from its foremost marginalized demographic, the political fight for civil rights was always a campaign that reached farther than the next presidential cycle.

We’re so tied to this four-year cycle, very few of us can imagine what life will be like on November 4th or 5th. It’s that bad. There are dozens of news stories right now that have differing doomsday scenarios if Trump loses and refuses to leave. This is not a good place to be in as a country.

When Ronald Reagan, in the only presidential debate of 1980, asked the nation “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” may have been the start of this phenomenon. It suddenly reduced the state of the nation to something to be renewed every four years. Rather than seeing the presidency as something that strove to keep a pendulum as close to a center as possible, the subtle connection of party affiliation and the notion of “the right direction” became a thing driving the electorate to see the parties as more and more polarized entities.

While the seeds of this phenomenon were in play since the Reagan years, it came to a head in 2010 when the G.O.P. regained control of the Senate and Leader Mitch McConnell made the declaration “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Some may argue that this is best understood in context, but the context of McConnell’s statements are voided given the direction the Republican Party, co-opted by the Tea Party, chose to travel. Prior to McConnell’s announcement, statements such as this were never made in public, and certainly not from congresspersons in the midst of an ever-widening cultural fracturing of the country.

For many, asking the question that Regan posed 40 years ago makes up the fundamentals of how “kitchen table” politics operate; it’s the question white working class families in Appalachia and the Rust Belt ask themselves before they vote. But, I’d argue, for this election, that question is too flimsy and too inadequate for what’s at stake.

Thankfully, the ineptitude of the Trump administration has proven unable to render the democratic republic asunder, but it’s certainly shaken the foundation under which it stands. An inspection would show that support columns are unstable and there are major cracks in the foundation walls. The only way that American citizens can attempt the process of repairing the American democracy is to go into the voting booth asking this simple question: what type of democratic society do you want to live in along with your kids and grandkids?

A well-functioning American democratic society is one where the executive branch of government takes seriously and protects the right to vote and the will of the People. The singular thing that cuts across the static of culture wars—race, gender, religion, intersectionality, political party affiliation etc.—is the ability for the electorate to hold free and fair elections. The Trump administration has failed to care about Russian interference in our elections and multiple times Trump has not acknowledged that he would accept the election results if he is not the winner. But when the collective imagination of said society can’t imagine beyond the span of four years, this is what we get.

In 2016, prior to the election, Marc Lamont Hill prophetically said that Donald Trump might be what this country needs to actualize some of its latent possibilities. He was right. The perfect storm of the Trump presidency, the coronavirus pandemic and this nation’s failure to grapple with white supremacy in its many forms revealed to many Americans just how much of this country is held together by political norms and not enshrined or protected by law. Without this very particular ad-mixture many of us wouldn’t have realized the sheer deficiency of our criminal justice system when faced with a global crisis and move cases forward where matters of constitutionality and democracy are at play nor just how handicapped our medical systems are in the face of a public health catastrophe. While Hill was right, it’s unfortunate that people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and over 200,000 Americans had to die in order for us to realize it.

The Constitution, I believe, is a solid document. The fact that, as I said above, it has a mechanism for amendments is what makes it good. However, it has one blind spot. And it’s a big one: it didn’t account for political parties. Especially not a two-party system. I don’t need to rehash the sordid history of how morally and ethically bankrupt the G.O.P. is, for some would be able to lay the same charges against the Democratic National Party. But, it’s clear that the Democratic party actually cares about democracy in ways that the Republican party does not. The fact that the Republican party has broken all precedents by moving forward with the Supreme Court nomination—especially in the face of many Senators going on record saying they wouldn’t do this—lets us know that as a body, they care more about power than they do about democracy.

In good conscience, no American should vote for a Republican candidate.

But America’s collective conscience is mired in themes of power, prejudice and capitalism so it’s of no true shock that the Republican party hasn’t collapsed under its own weight of fallibility. These ideals transcend the on-the-ground culture wars that revolve around race, religion and politics. When you have “good” white Christian folks who will vote for a man that uses the vilest of language in general and entered “grab ‘em by the pussy” into the popular lexicon because he’s aligned with a party that has a pro-life stance, the aggregate moral compass of this nation is broken. (Sidenote: any white evangelical that argues for support of Trump on the basis of the G.O.P.’s pro-life stance, but can’t create the logic that the lives of unarmed citizens is just as valuable are heretics and the label of “Christian” should not be attached to them!)

As we are a democratic republic—we elect people to make laws for us rather than voting directly on every single thing—we are living in exile in our own country. Aside from the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections, never has the fate of the country hung in such a delicate balance. Politics is the means we use so that we don’t have a war. Let’s be clear, this country debated and debated and debated over the issue of slavery. It came to a head in the fall of 1860—after the election—when South Carolina convened a conference to vote on articles of secession. Shots rang out at Ft. Sumpter a month after Lincoln was inaugurated. Through a distorted a lens, a lens that was blind to the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants, Lincoln did in fact believe in the democratic American experiment. His presidential successor did not. It took another century of so-called progress before the basic American right of voting was enfranchised to those same descendants of enslaved Africans. And even now, when governors reduce early voting locations or dispatch too few or broken voting booths to precincts with high African American voter registration the question of full enfranchisement is still relevant in 2020.

Donald Trump is not the answer for African Americans, nor for anyone else living in democratic exile in this country. Which, as I see it, is most of us. Whether you live in the vast farmland of Iowa or Kansas or whether you make your bed amongst the coastal elites, whatever remnants of democracy that are recognizable will be erased with another four years of grotesque politics from the Trump administration or a Republican controlled Congress.

I’m tired of living in exile. I wish more Americans were as tired as me.

3 thoughts on “Notes on an Exile from American Democracy

  1. Reflections of Sacha Baron Cohen. Worth considering in these particular times….

    “Voltaire was right, “Those who can make you believe absurdities — can make you commit atrocities.”

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