We are in the third attempt in American history to build a truly multiethnic democracy. These are the thoughts of the authors, Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, of the New York Times bestseller “How Democracies Die”. So, when were those three times? By examining this question, we can more clearly see the crisis that our democracy faces—its very survival.
The first attempt at creating a multiethnic democracy began at the beginning of this nation with the words of the Declaration of Independence that made the assertion that “All men are created equal.” That intent was expressed by Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave owner.
When the framers of the Constitution met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, one of the major controversies was over the question of slavery. The South wanted to continue its practice of using African slaves to grow tobacco and cotton. Slaves were seen as property that had no rights. The North strongly objected to this view and advocated the end of slavery.
This issue of slavery was a deal breaker for three southern states who threatened to walk out on the convention if slavery were abolished. To preserve the United States and avoid a split, the North acceded to the southern demands and made a compromise. This ended the first attempt.
The second attempt to create a multiethnic democracy occurred after the Civil War when the North passed three Amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment ended slavery, the 14th Amendment gave former slaves citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and the 15th Amendment gave adult black males the right to vote. This expanded democracy lasted until the end of Reconstruction in 1877 when to retain the presidency, northern Republicans, wearied from trying to force the South to treat freedmen equally, abandoned the freed slaves and their rights, trusting the South to protect them, and removed Union soldiers who had maintained order by enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments.
Racist factions arose to wantonly kill former slaves and their white Republican supporters. Blacks lost their rights and lived in terror. The result was what was called the Democratic “Solid South” where Jim Crow segregation became the law. This was the second failed attempt to create a multiethnic democracy.
Because of this, northern and southern whites were able to get along, even though they held differing political views. There developed a spirit of cooperation, if not agreement.
This unconstitutional disenfranchisement of blacks lasted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After demonstrations and protests and violence, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson helped to push through two pieces of legislation called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These reestablished black rights. Because of this, southern whites abandoned the Democratic Party in droves and became Republicans. Blacks largely became Democrats.
In 1965, an immigration law was passed that encouraged Latin Americans and Asians to swell the population, diminishing the power of whites.
According to the authors, “The Republican party has been the main driver of the chasm between the parties. Since 2008, the GOP has at times behaved like an antisystem party in its obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremist policy positions.” Well-funded outside groups including the Koch brothers have been able to largely dictate the policy agendas of many Republican candidates. Outside individuals such as talk show host Rush Limbaugh and media such as Fox News and other right-wing organizations are now more powerful than the Republican leadership. “This hollowing out has left the party vulnerable to takeover by extremists.”
Today, the Democratic Party is essentially the party of minorities, while the Republican Party has become the bastion of white conservative Christians. Religion and race have blended to create deep polarization in the nation which led to the election of Donald Trump. He has encouraged both the end of immigration of nonwhites and non-Christians, while Republicans are working diligently to reduce the voting power of minorities through voter suppression and gerrymandering.
A recent example is seen in the Wisconsin primary where the Democratic governor of the state tried to delay the acceptance of absentee ballots for a week because of the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Supreme Court ignored the COVID-19 disruption. In a 5-4 decision along party lines, they supported fellow Republicans in forbidding the absentee ballot delay.
The task, according to the authors of “How Democracies Die”, is based upon the realization that, “… The world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved. This is America’s great challenge. We cannot retreat from it.”
U.S. whites will become a minority by 2045, and this loss of dominance terrifies some, who may push for authoritarian leaders. The United States is not immune from having our democracy overthrown by extremists and replaced by a dictatorship.