How Race, Xenophobia Are Defining American Democracy

The following is the third in a series of articles on democracy. The first article, on the Arab Spring can be found here and the second article on the EU can be found here.

During the 1980s, despite his hawkish attitude towards the Soviet Union and his placement of US nuclear missiles in Europe, President Ronald Reagan reached agreement on the reduction of nuclear weapons with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Some historians say that Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet system was one of the reasons for the downfall of communism.

Fast forward to December 2012 where the US Senate fails to muster the two-thirds majority required for ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They failed because Republicans feared the Tea Party would go against them for making deals with the UN, a “foreign power”.

It is a sad statement on the state of democracy in America today—those who claim to be Reagan’s followers have no clue as to how his legacy was developed. It is all a testament to the role race and xenophobia are playing in the political gridlock that is today’s American democracy.

The Separation of Powers

In order to assist in ratifying the convention referred to above, Bob Dole was wheeled onto the floor of the Senate. Dole enlisted during World War II and suffered combat injuries fighting against the Germans. He later becomes a US Senator and the Republican candidate for President in 1996 when he was defeated by Bill Clinton.

Dole begged his fellow Republicans to ratify the treaty but the vote failed by 61 to 39 as Republican Senators lined up against it. They had asserted that the convention was a threat to US sovereignty—even though it was made clear that this was definitely not the case and that the rights it enshrined were wholly consistent with established US law and policy.

The creation of three separate but equal branches of power the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary, which the country’s Founding Fathers had designed to ensure a balance of power within the new nation, has produced nothing but gridlock over the past several years. The reason why this is such a tragedy is that the one enduring and singularly most important feature of democracy and American democracy in particular, has been its ability to evolve.

In 1789 when the United States Constitution first came into effect, the only people allowed to vote were white male property owners—who were no more than 10% of the population at the time. This was a time when Blacks were being enslaved, Native Americans were being wiped out and sexual and gender equality were but a distant dream.

Since then, changes to the Constitution and various laws have allowed everyone the vote, regardless of race, gender or religion, in pursuit of what has been called a more perfect union.  The America that we know today is a country where people of all races and religions live in peace and enjoy, at least in theory, equality before the law.

America today, where a black man has been voted President not once but twice, is an example to the rest of the world of just how great democracy can be.

Political Gridlock

Yet, the gridlock which now exists might derail the moderate economic recovery as some Republicans are threatening to close down the government, a peculiar outcome of the separation of powers, until and unless the President agrees to defund the Affordable Care Act. The Act, also known as Obamacare, is the President’s single greatest legislative achievement to date.

Republicans are essentially attempting to achieve by economic sabotage what they could not achieve by legislative or even judicial means, as the Supreme Court has already declared Obamacare legal.

What has caused this gridlock in government?

What is the source of this fearsome animosity that Republicans have for the President in particular and for Democrats in general?

The answer is that it as a result of some very deep fractures which are emerging in American society and the reason for those fractures can be summed up in one word—race. To understand the role race plays in American society we have to go back to the country’s history and in particular the civil war.

The Importance Of The Civil War To American Democracy

If you have never watched the American documentary series The Civil War by Ken Burns then I would urge you to do so as soon as you can. In terms of historical and war documentaries it is perhaps second only to that truly monumental epic The World at War, the World War II documentary narrated by Laurence Olivier.

In The Civil War the very noted and eminent historian Shelby Foote makes the following comment:

“Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

When one considers that the enslavement of black people was the primary cause of the Civil War then we should not be surprised that race continues to play a defining role in American politics to this very day. I will explain how so.

The Republican Southern Strategy

By freeing the slaves Republican President Abraham Lincoln ensured that the Southern States would vote Democrat for generations to come. The old mantra in the South was “I would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican”.

However, when in 1964 US President Johnson, a Democrat, forced the Civil Rights Act through the Congress and effectively ended the racial segregation or Jim Crow laws in the South, there was a backlash in the Southern States. The passing of the Act accelerated what up to that point had been only a gradual move away from Democrats in the South. This move had started in 1948 when Democrats first mooted civil rights.

Thus, after 1964, Republicans established an electoral stranglehold over the South.

In order to maintain that stranglehold Republicans developed what became known as the Southern Strategy in order to maintain their appeal to their white base. Thus they used coded but racist language such as “states rights”—meaning that desegregation should not have been forced through by the Federal government but left to the sates themselves.

Another way that Republicans could show their racist bona fides was by visiting the Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The university’s major claim to fame was that it banned interracial dating. One commentator describes BJU as a bastion for “Christian Fundamentalist bigotry”.

No major Republican candidate could ignore a trip, or more precisely a pilgrimage, to BJU and a visit was compulsory for anyone wanting to achieve the highest office. George Bush visited BJU in 2000 before his election to the Presidency.

Demographics Of Political Power

However, despite this Southern strategy, Republicans have a huge demographic problem. Their political base is the ageing white voter. Younger white voters are trending heavily Democratic. Blacks vote as a solid bloc for the Democrats and in the last elections 74% of Hispanics, the fastest growing section of the population voted for the Democrats. On top of that Republicans have also lost the majority vote in 5 of the last 6 Presidential Elections.

Asians, another growing ethnic group also gave Democrats 74% of the vote in 2012.

As such, Republicans are caught in a demographic vice grip which is also a ticking time bomb. They want to pander to and retain their old white base but in reality there is very little future in it. On the other hand, if they try to reach out to other demographics then they risk alienating their white base—which by the way is also overwhelmingly male.

Why not appeal to that base with logic and reason you might ask?

Why not develop policies that are more appealing than those of the Democrats and which appeal to the broader middle class? The Democrats certainly do not have all the answers.

The simple truth is that this has nothing to do with logics or policies—Obamacare being a prime example as it is based on ideas that Republicans put forward when they opposed Hillary Clinton’s attempt at reforming healthcare back in the 1990s.

The real reason why the current gridlock exists has more to do with emotion and fear of change than anything else—with race and xenophobia at the heart of it.

The White Man’s Last Stand

The white red-blooded All-American male seems to believe that they are now making their last stand—like Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. A society which they have dominated since the Declaration of Independence has since become one where racial, sexual and gender equality are now the law. Moreover, the pace of demographic change is such that by the middle of the 21st century whites will be a minority in America.

Latinos are a huge symbol and part of this demographic shift and the hence the very negative comments frequently hurled during any debate on immigration. As a matter of fact, anything “foreign” is viewed with great suspicion, including of course the UN—xenophobia being merely the extension of domestic frustrations.

Barack Obama is a particularly potent symbol of the frustration of rank and file Republicans with that change—he is black, multicultural, lived in Indonesia as a boy and has a certain element of global appeal. Hence the peculiar attempts at trying to deligitimise him by questioning both the place of his birth and his Americanism.

Many want to have Obama impeached—for what no one seems to be quite sure. It was George Bush who lied about Iraq, took America to war and ran the economy off a cliff.

Republican lawmakers in the Congress, who are of course also mostly male and white, have been doing their best to respond to their bellicose constituents by opposing anything or any policy Barack Obama puts forward irrespective of whether they would normally agree with it or not. One journalist even chastised Obama for supporting a proposal going through the Congress as it would only serve to make Republicans vote against it.

Such is the farcical nature of America’s politics today that the President is not even allowed to express an opinion.

In the individual states, Republican lawmakers are busily ensuring they gerrymander the electoral boundaries and repress the minority vote by any means necessary in order to boost Republican chances of winning both State and Federal elections. So for example, there are new voter ID laws which allow people to turn up and vote with a gun licence, since most male white Southerners favour guns, but not with a student ID, because young people tend to vote for Obama.

So What Now For American Democracy

The result of all this resentment and manoeuvring is that American democracy is at a major crossroads as the normal rules, one Party wins the election and the other provides reasonably objective opposition, no longer applies. The economy might suffer in the short term as a result or at least for as long as Barack Obama is President.

However, this is not just about race but also about gender and if Hillary Clinton becomes President in 2016 as many commentators think she is well poised to do, then gender politics will rear its ugly head. The only thing that might make a difference is that Mrs. Clinton will most probably gain more of the white vote than Mr. Obama has managed so far.

However, in the longer term, the march of demographics cannot and will not be denied. Immigration reform will happen and it will add more Hispanics to the Democratic cause. Texas with its 38 Electoral College votes and 36 seats in the House of Representatives (which is more than the current margin Republicans hold over Democrats in the House) is poised to become Democratic even without immigration reform. So too will other Southern states like Arizona.

A time will come when irrespective of what Republicans do Democrats will be in a position to control the House, the Senate and the Presidency for at least a generation. It would appear that the best chance for the Republican Party is to make peace with the “Indians” rather than persisting with that their stand. Otherwise, they will surely go the way of Custer.

Jonathan Ledwidge is the author of the book A Mannequin for President (iUniverse).

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