Powerful Franita Tolson:
“This is a republic, not a democracy” is the last thing that one committed to voting rights wants to hear, particularly from those defending the shortcomings of what most of the world (used to) regard as the last great democracy. But this critique highlights a core failure of the American experiment that too few people have challenged as the country has become more democratic over the last 60 years: the fact that Americans love the ideas of democracy, to speak the words of democracy, but don’t want to do the real work required to live in a democracy. Political elites push marginalized people towards a system that only works for the powerful, and they point to America’s sometime embrace of democratic norms as evidence that the system is, in fact, democratic. The failure to recognize the difference between living in a democracy and living in a country with democratic norms means that rights can be infringed without recourse, political parties can maintain power without majority support, courts can be stacked with partisans…all while engaging the language of democracy. Americans can borrow democratic rhetoric without truly committing to democratic ideals.
Democracy, however, is not just rhetoric; it is a commitment. It is a way of life. As much as we would like for it to be the American way, history has shown that our commitment to democracy has, at times, been fleeting. The right to vote, for example, is considered the cornerstone of democratic legitimacy in our system. Yet our history is littered with examples of wrongful disenfranchisement against people of color, women, the disabled, the impoverished, and others from all walks of life, with state sanctioned violence and intimidation being used to deprive people of this most precious right. Today, we are still fighting these voting wars because the democratic norms that allowed for broader access to the ballot six decades ago have been easily eroded since they are not explicitly written in the text of the U.S. Constitution.