The United States has long held itself up as a bastion of democracy. It has promoted democracy around the world. It fought, at great cost, for democracy against fascism in Europe during World War II. Now the fight has come home.
America’s credentials as a democracy were always slightly blemished. The United States was founded as a representative democracy, but only a small fraction of its citizens — mostly white male property owners — were eligible to vote. After the abolition of slavery, the white people of America’s South struggled for nearly a century to keep African-Americans from voting, using poll taxes and literacy tests, for example, to make casting a ballot inaccessible to the poor. Their voting rights were guaranteed nearly a half-century after the enfranchisement of women in 1920.
Democracies rightly constrain majority domination, which is why they enshrine certain basic rights that cannot be denied. But in the United States, this has been turned on its head. The minority is dominating the majority, with little regard for their political and economic rights. A majority of Americans want gun control, an increase in the minimum wage, guaranteed access to health insurance, and better regulation of the banks that brought on the 2008 crisis. Yet all of these goals seem unattainable.
Part of the reason for that is rooted in the Constitution. Two of the three presidents elected in this century assumed office despite having lost the popular vote. Were it not for the Electoral College, Al Gore would have become president in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
But the Republican Party’s reliance on voter suppression, gerrymandering, and similar efforts at electoral manipulation have also contributed to ensuring that the will of the majority is thwarted. The party’s approach is perhaps understandable: After all, shifting demographics have put the Republicans at an electoral disadvantage. A majority of Americans will soon be nonwhite, and a 21st-century world and economy cannot be reconciled with a male-dominated society. And the urban areas where the majority of Americans live, whether in the North or the South, have learned the value of diversity.
Voters in these areas of growth and dynamism have also seen the role that government can and must play to bring about shared prosperity. They have abandoned the shibboleths of the past, sometimes almost overnight. In a democratic society, therefore, the only way a minority — whether it’s large corporations trying to exploit workers and consumers, banks trying to exploit borrowers, or those mired in the past trying to recreate a bygone world — can retain their economic and political dominance is by undermining democracy itself.
That strategy includes many tactics. Aside from supporting selective immigration, Republican officials have sought to prevent Democratic voters from registering. Many Republican-controlled states have instituted burdensome identification requirements at polling stations. And some local governments have purged such voters from electoral rolls, reduced the number of polling stations, or shortened their hours of operation.
It’s striking how difficult America makes it to vote, to exercise the basic right of citizenship. The United States is one of the few democracies to hold elections on a workday, rather than a Sunday, obviously making it more difficult for working people to vote.
America’s ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice for all may never have been fully realized, but now they are under open attack. Democracy has become rule of, by, and for the few; and justice for all is available to all who are white and can afford it.
Democracy is under attack, and we all have an obligation to do what we can — wherever we are — to save it.
Joseph E. Stiglitz’s most recent book is “Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump.” © 2018 by Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org