August 28, 2020

Is the United States a true democracy?

Written by Julye M. Williams

A lover of people, justice, and equity.

Yesterday I led a panel discussion about The 1619 Project with one of our newest partners, Smart from the Start. The 1619 Project is a publication from the New York Times Magazine and challenges the belief that the United States began with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It instead seeks to reframe American history around slavery and the contributions of African Americans. 

We began by acknowledging that the United States has been built on the ancestral land of millions of indigenous people. The original inhabitants of this land taught the early British colonizers how to grow and harvest tobacco, corn, cotton, and other crops that would later become a part of a system of global trade.

I began with a pop quiz.  Have you ever heard of the Mayflower? All the participants – more than 100 – said yes. We agreed that we learned about the Mayflower in school. This was the ship that carried the pilgrims and arrived in Jamestown in 1620.

Then, I asked if people heard of the White Lion. Nearly everyone had not. This was the ship that brought the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown. It arrived before the pilgrims…in 1619.

We went on to discuss key takeaways from the publication. With more than 18 written essays, poems, photos, a podcast, and more, the topic that has stayed with me is “democracy.” What is it, actually?  And have we ever honestly had it in America?

Often defined as a “government for the people, by the people,” its existence in the United States is debatable at best.

Democracy: Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

If democracy is government by the people, then who are “the people?”

The history of who qualifies as “people” is a significant part of the American narrative. This land has been inhabited since before the British colonizers, however, those who could participate in the colonial and later the US government were a small minority. When the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, only White, male, property owners over the age of 21 could vote or have a say in the government.  Theirs was the only voice that counted, even though the government’s reach deeply impacted the lives of those who had no say in it at all. All enslaved people, all indigenous people, all White people who did not own property and women did not have a voice in government. All, however, were bound by the laws, policies, and actions of the “people” who could vote.

“By the people”

Government “by the people” often leads one to think of representation. If a democratic government is truly one where everyone can participate, then a government “by the people” means there is equal and fair representation for all. It means that people are able to elect representatives that will advocate for their interests in larger governing bodies. This, unfortunately, is not the case in America.

While the US population is becoming more diverse and multicultural, the US government is still disproportionately led by White men. In 2017, the Reflective Democracy campaign released a study that stated, “Despite white men comprising only 31 percent of the population, 97 percent of all Republican elected officials are white and 76 percent are male. Of all Democratic elected officials, 79 percent are white and 65 percent are male.” 

Further, according to Quartz, the typical US Congress member is 12 times richer than the average American household. In 2015, the median income for a US senator was $1.1 million. The median income for a member of the House of Representatives was $900,000. During the same period, the average household income in 2015 was $58,476. This hardly represents a government “by the people.”  

So is ours truly a government “for the people by the people?” It seems as though the government is dominated by wealthy White men, just as it had been in 1776.

Fortunately, organizations such as Vote Run Lead, Higher Heights for America, and Run for Something work to promote women, BIPOC and LGBTQ individuals to run for elected office. And, there is good news. Studies show that when BIPOC run for office, they win. The goal then is to encourage and support more BIPOC as they run for office and promote equal representation across all levels of elected office.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

– The Declaration of Independence, 1776

“A free electoral system.”

Another cornerstone of democracy is the ability of the governed to cast their votes for those who will represent their interests in varying levels of government. We are often reminded that “our vote counts” during election time. While this is true, the electoral system has been under attack for centuries. Despite laws being passed that would ensure Americans the right to vote, intimidation, terror campaigns, and policies by those actively working to prevent people from voting remains a barrier to democracy. 

Today, we see elected officials implementing a variety of tactics to ensure everyone’s vote is not counted. Whether it is called voter suppression, gerrymandering, or something else the goal is the same. It’s to prevent some groups of people from freely casting their ballot, thus affecting the outcome of elections. 

For example, in the 2018 election, state officials in Georgia decided to create a “use it or lose it” law that removed voters from their voting roster if they had not consistently voted within a prescribed period of time. This sudden, unprecedented decision made thousands of predominately BIPOC people ineligible to vote in the upcoming presidential and governor’s election. Or, in North Carolina where voting districts were drawn “with surgical precision” to ensure Republican candidates would win. This has been disputed in courts, and the resolution, unfortunately, has not led to equal representation in a free electoral system.

Did You Know?

Elected officials manage the distribution of billions of dollars of federal, state and local funding? These leaders create and enforce laws from what is taught in our schools to our country’s stance on climate change. They also they create corporate and indvidual tax codes, influence our food supply, determine our access to health care, and so much more.

Do you think we have a democracy?

If we accept that democracy is government “of the people by the people”, do you think the US is a democracy?  As the Demographics of Political Power chart above shows, people of color currently represent 40% of the US population, but just 11% of all elected officials.  We know that in 2043, BIPOC will become the majority of the population. Will we have a democratic government “for the people, by the people” then? And, what needs to be done to ensure we do? I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

In solidarity,


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