Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
While the American public is increasingly diverse and multi-racial, our politics has become dominated by a revived and virulent rise of white nationalism.
It is crucial to remember that this is not a new dynamic. As Professors Chatelain and Krochmal have described in earlier posts, our history is characterized by cycles of inclusion and retrenchment, which are echoed in contemporary American politics. In the face of a rising multiracial America, we are again witnessing a reassertion of white supremacy. From voter suppression in states like Georgia, to the shocking attempts by the lame duck Wisconsin state legislature to hobble the incoming Democratic Governor, to ongoing struggles over the basic electoral rules and separation of powers in North Carolina, we are witnessing increasingly brazen attempts by conservatives to hoard and entrench political power, even at the cost of dismantling democratic institutions.
The reality is that openly racialized appeals to white identity and exclusionary populism in the Trumpist vein are likely to continue. It is also true that the institutional structures of our current democracy are either designed to maintain entrenched power and white supremacy, or can be easily weaponized to those ends. The prospects for a genuinely multiracial and inclusive democracy thus depend on finding responses to these combined forces of racialized exclusionary populism, on the one hand, and skewed (and easily skewed) institutions, on the other. Like the Reconstruction Era and the civil rights movement, we need to build the political power of racially-inclusive coalitions and establish new legal-institutional regimes capable of defending the idea of a racially-inclusive democracy.
Three strategies in particular stand out as a way to defuse and then dismantle these reassertions of ethnonationalism, and consolidate the rise of multiracial democracy.
First, we need narratives and campaigns that can blunt the edge of race-baiting appeals designed to fragment and fracture multiracial solidarities. Professor Richeson’s post emphasizes the importance of framing in shaping Americans’ reactions to social and demographic change. Demos’ narrative research has highlighted how race-baiting, dog-whistle appeals can be defused by highlighting the divisive and strategic nature of these efforts as a way to further enable the exploitation of black, brown, and white working families.
Second, we need to build independent, autonomous political power for communities of color through deep, long-term organizing on the ground. Historically, such political power has been central to driving and defending policies that enforce racial inclusion. Thus, where freedpersons successfully formed independent grassroots organizations, they were able to exert “strategic pressure” on white workers and white constituencies, forcing alliances and punishing defectors who attempted to reassert racial hierarchy—a rebalancing of power that lasted until the subsequent surge of racist violence by groups like the KKK. Similarly, it was the ability of black workers to build political and economic power through the CIO in the early 20th century that helped create the left-flank of FDR’s New Deal coalition, and which secured the earliest commitments by Northern Democrats to civil rights. Current examples of grassroots movements led by communities of color include Fight for 15, which is working to increase the minimum wage, and the Florida Rights Restoration Campaign, which advocates for restoring voting rights for people with prior felony convictions.
Third, we need to design new institutions that can defend the idea of a multiracial democracy. It is not a coincidence that Radical Republican Reconstructionists sought three constitutional amendments to embed their vision of a post-abolition racially inclusive democracy. Similarly, the civil rights movements achieved much of its long-term successes not just through grassroots movement organizing and changes to public norms and values, but through the creation of legal institutions that helped protect communities of color. These institutions included the Civil Rights Act and Title VI, as well as the Voting Rights Act and the empowerment of DOJ to oversee state election processes.
Narratives can help defuse race-baiting. In addition, organizing can ensure independent political power for communities of color to defend themselves and push for policies that advance the vision of a multiracial democracy. But in the long run, that democracy can survive only if we also transform our political institutions to ensure racial inclusion and genuine democracy. We should pursue measures like the restoration of full voting rights for those previously convicted of felonies (as Florida recently did); the elimination of voter purge and voter suppression measures through reforms like automatic voter registration; the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case; and the public financing of elections. The incoming Democratic House’s proposal for HR1 is a good start.
But more radical institutional enforcement mechanisms may be needed, too. Reconstruction-era Republicans, for example, embedded their own remedy for former Confederates seeking to suppress freedpersons’ vote. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides for a powerful response to voter suppression: states that engage in this practice may be stripped of representation in Congress in direct proportion to the number of voters whose access to the ballot is “denied … or in any way abridged.” This remedy has not been implemented in modern times. But Congress might explore legislation based on Section 2 that provides a powerful counter to future efforts by politicians like Brian Kemp in Georgia. Where progressives have control of state governments, they might also create independent commissions not just for redistricting but also for oversight of electoral systems, creating state-level equivalents to the VRA preclearance regime and offsetting the current weaknesses of DOJ enforcement.
Fourth, we might consider even more structural and institutional changes. The disproportionate power of rural states in the Senate poses a long-term barrier to multiracial inclusive democracy, particularly given the geographic distribution of communities of color. Adding DC as a state and independence for Puerto Rico might help create a more equitable balance of power.
The recent battles over the Supreme Court represent another structural battleground. The power grab at the Court by Republicans—particularly the blockade of Merrick Garland in 2016 and the sudden departure of Anthony Kennedy followed by the scorched-earth confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh—highlights how the politicization of the Court, and its current 5-4 majority, represents a likely barrier to many proposed efforts to address problems of voter suppression and money in politics. Moving to a system of rotating Supreme Court seats with 18-year term limits could help to defuse that danger.
These measures are not all going to be achievable in the short term. But as we face down the specter of white nationalism and the deliberate entrenching of political power at the expense of democratic institutions, we must begin to imagine more transformative institutional and policy changes aimed and laying the foundations for a genuinely multiracial democracy.