Donald Trump has spent his brief political career assaulting the norms and institutions that sustain American democracy, from his attacks on the judiciary to his ongoing effort to discredit the 2020 election results. But his serial transgressions have had one salutary effect: they have pushed the topic of democracy itself to the centre of US politics. Like the plumbing and wiring in a house, the architecture of democracy is ignored when functional, but today the institutions, laws, norms and procedures that make democracy work are the subject of bestselling books, policy briefs and roundtable discussions in academic centres and the popular press. President Biden himself led a “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021.
The dialogue and political action in the US have stretched to legislatures and the grassroots as well. The Democratic-controlled Congress introduced two major pieces of voting rights legislation in its 2021 and 2022 sessions—though it failed to pass either—while Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have passed a series of voting restrictions in the name of combating the phantom voter fraud that Trump and millions of his supporters claim lost him the 2020 election. Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters have launched multiple campaigns to take control of state-level election administration, while progressive groups have organised to oppose them and to support the expansion of voting rights. Americans have not debated the meaning and methods of democracy this intensely since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
It is a vigorous and important debate, with a void at its core.
On the right, the void is owing to two factors. First, large majorities of Republican voters continue to believe that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election, despite the fact that all the evidence shows otherwise, and despite the broader context: the voter fraud most Republicans believe carried Joe Biden to victory in the 2020 election is a vanishingly small problem in the United States. Meanwhile, Republican party leaders shrug off the 6 January 2021 insurrection or celebrate it as a model of democratic ideals; refuse to acknowledge that the 2020 election was legitimate; and use the chimera of massive voter fraud to change election laws such that future GOP officials might more easily contest or overturn election results they dislike. The increasingly plain authoritarianism of the Republican party has alarmed many, including commentators with unimpeachable conservative credentials.
Second, today’s Republican party has almost no discernible policy agenda. Many of the GOP’s own supporters have worried for years that the party is suffering an intensifying drought of ideas. Today, the party’s reservoir of policy proposals appears to contain little more than angry resistance to the perceived existential threat posed by the left. In fact, the Republican party made its lack of ideas an official party position during the 2020 election, when it adopted a platform that contained no policies. The party’s single objective, its platform stated, was to support Donald Trump.
Today’s Republican party is powered by delusion and reaction, but the delusion is widely shared, and the reaction is proving politically effective. Its effectiveness creates the void on the left: Democrats and their supporters have a pro-democracy agenda that they are largely unable to implement, and evidence suggests that their electoral prospects will get worse before they get better.
The Democratic party would face a daunting election this November even under the best of circumstances. It is normal for the president’s party to lose seats in Congress in midterm elections, especially in a deeply polarised era, when partisans who oppose the president are energized to vote. Indeed, most forecasts predict that Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate, in the November 2022 elections.
But cyclical election patterns do not tell the whole story. The party’s own internal polling shows that they are also being severely punished for their association with a policy agenda that is heavily focused on racial and gender identity, and unpopular among most people outside the party’s highly educated progressive base, including many of the racial minority groups in whose name it is ostensibly practised.
Polls show, for instance, that blacks and Hispanics are only slightly less likely than whites to support steady or increased funding for the police, and that Hispanics overwhelmingly feel patriotic about the United States, in stark contrast to the feelings of many progressive activists. Recent elections suggest that these views have political consequences. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 governor’s race, and a substantial majority of Hispanic voters, with a campaign centred on opposition to Critical Race Theory in schools. Meanwhile, his Republican counterpart for attorney general, Cuban American Jason Miyares, happily mocks the moniker Latinx, perhaps emboldened by polls showing that most Hispanics have either never heard the term or find it bizarre or offensive. In San Francisco, Asian American voters were at the forefront of a multiracial, landslide recall of three school board members who launched a divisive and historically questionable effort to rename 44 of the city’s schools, and who ended merit-based admission to its prestigious Lowell High. Finally, former police officer Eric Adams won the 2021 mayoral race in New York City after an eclectic campaign emphasizing anti-elitism and law and order. Those themes carried him to a comfortable win over his more progressive challengers and helped him build a cross-racial coalition of working-class blacks, whites and Hispanics that would have been the stuff of dreams to an earlier generation of left-wing activists.
Democrats might well protest that few of the party’s elected members support the policy agenda of the progressive vanguard. This is both correct and irrelevant. No elected Democrats supported the counterculture in the late 1960s, long before Fox News was around to link the two. And still the public made the link, much to the party’s electoral detriment.
Democrats and their supporters on the left thus face a dilemma: they are being punished for an agenda that places too much emphasis on race, but they are battling a Republican party whose efforts to make voting harder have a heavy racial component. The restrictive voting laws that Republican legislatures have pushed in the last decade, especially in the former slaveholding states of the Deep South, evoke uncomfortable echoes of the Jim Crow laws that denied black Americans their political rights and their right to vote for a century after the Civil War. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 largely dismantled Jim Crow, but they also unleashed a new form of racial politics in America. Since their passage, a strong undercurrent of racial resentment has coursed through conservative politics. An ugly, virulent strain of it propelled Donald Trump to first the GOP nomination, then the presidency, in 2016.
Those most worried about the future of American democracy must therefore confront two cold realities. First, the policy agenda of the progressive left, with its relentless emphasis on race and gender, is deeply unpopular, or at the very least is caricatured to great political effect by the right. Second, whatever the merits or demerits of the left’s approach to addressing racism, the fight to expand and defend American democracy is bound up with the country’s ongoing struggle for racial justice.
But so far neither party has offered an agenda to strengthen American democracy that is both popular and effective. Those on the right have no positive agenda at all. Those on the left have a morally just one, but no idea how to make it work politically.
A proposal: let’s focus on income inequality. If we do, we can reduce racism and strengthen democracy at the same time.
Over the last forty years, America’s economy and corporate profits have grown steadily, but the gains have gone almost entirely to the few. Working-class incomes have stagnated. Reducing inequality is, first and foremost, the right thing to do.
It might also be popular. Increasing taxes on the wealthy and raising the minimum wage, for example, receive roughly 50% support even among Republicans—and huge majorities among everyone else, especially if these policies are framed in the right way.
Closing the wealth gap will also have positive ripple effects on American democracy and society. In politics, less inequality means less polarisation. Over the past several decades, increasing prosperity and mobility have allowed Americans to sort themselves into geographical and online communities of people who share their identities and lifestyle choices. The highly educated winners of the twenty-first-century economy have sorted themselves with particular vigour, clustering around a small number of urban centres. They have created within these communities a subculture that is marked by meritocratic competition and cosmopolitan values, and that is increasingly distinct from the culture of less educated Americans. The cultural gap that results is made even wider by the fact that rates of divorce, obesity, out-of-wedlock childbirth and early death—all of which were similar across classes in the mid-twentieth century—have now split sharply along lines of income and education. As Liliana Mason’s brilliant research suggests, political polarisation in America is driven far more by the identities that form around these subcultures than it is by policy disagreements. And it is polarisation that drives the norm-breaking and institution-wrecking that is destabilising American democracy.
Many of America’s thorniest social and racial problems are tied to economic inequality. For instance, there is an unconscionably large wealth gap between black and white Americans. But that gap is owing primarily to the income gap between the wealthiest whites and the wealthiest blacks. Poor whites and poor blacks are, to a large degree, equally poor. If we raise them both up, and reduce the wealth of the very richest Americans—a policy proposal that a few of those rich Americans themselves support—we will significantly reduce the racial wealth gap. Similarly, there is a massive gap in incarceration rates between blacks and whites. But a large portion of the gap is explained by differences in income between blacks and whites. Take those away, and much of the gap in incarceration rates goes away too.
Much, not all. Eliminate income differences between blacks and whites entirely and racism remains, along with its pernicious effects. For instance, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned for the same crimes, and they are much more likely to be convicted for crimes they never committed. Similarly, studies have shown with depressing regularity that white job applicants are more likely than equally qualified black applicants to get interviews and jobs. Race matters and racism is real. But working together is the best tool at our disposal to reduce racism.
Social psychology research has unequivocally shown that having groups work together in pursuit of common goals is the best way to reduce hostility between them. The act of building a multiracial coalition to reduce inequality would, in itself, fortify American democracy and help heal some of the country’s deep racial wounds. It would surely be a better approach to reducing racial resentment than a lifetime’s worth of lectures about white privilege or fragility—lectures that are of questionable effectiveness and that are especially galling at a moment when the diminishing life prospects of working-class whites are leading them to kill themselves at harrowing rates with drink, drugs and self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Those who protest that racism will render a rainbow coalition for economic justice impossible should note that education, not race, emerged in the 2020 election as a key dividing line in American politics, much as it has in the UK. Many on the American right are eager to build a multiracial, working-class coalition based on hostility to the cultural elitism of the urbane, highly educated winners of the Information Age economy. Elections in 2020 and 2021 suggest that they are making progress. The question is not whether a multiracial coalition can be built. The question is whether it will be built by the right, with an agenda based on reaction and resentment, or by the left, with an agenda focused on distributing the wealth of the modern economy more fairly.
For the world’s industrialized democracies, the resentments bred by migration and income inequality present the great challenges of our time. It does not matter whether those resentments stem from racism or economic anxiety. The two feed on each other, and in any case, both racism and economic insecurity weaken democracy.
Reducing both simultaneously will not be easy. But if there is hope, it lies not in a politics that emphasizes the primacy of racial identity. It lies in a politics of cross-racial solidarity focused on ensuring that everyone who contributes to the twenty-first-century economy—from the highly educated professionals who have been so lavishly rewarded by it already, to the truck drivers, grocery workers and home health aides who have not—can expect dignity and financial security from their contributions.