America's Failing Democracy

This was a 4th of July (2019) speech given at the city's Speakers' Corner.

There are two major documents defining this country: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We argue continually about the meaning of the Constitution. Yet our major historical celebration is for the Declaration not the Constitution - we celebrate July 4th not September 17.

There are no doubt several reasons for that. But today I want to talk about one of them. While the Constitution is a set of rules for creating and operating a country, the Declaration is an announcement of the values to be enshrined in that Constitution.

And the major value is set out in the very first words of the document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…."

What the United States is all about is equality. Our Declaration of Independence, the first and most important of the documents that says what this country is, begins with an assertion of the equality of people.

Of course, we here in the U.S. are not in fact equal in everything: for example, I am not Mike Trout's equal as a baseball player. But the opening of the Declaration is to be taken as a commitment to equality as citizens, not to equality in athletic skills or intellect or speaking skills and so on. What the Declaration commits this country to is regarding each of us as the equal of the rest in matters of the rights and duties of citizenship.

Now what form of political life is best for people who are equal in that way? It took time to understand the answer. Slowly it has become clear that a democratic form of government is what best carries out that initial commitment to equality.

And so over the years, the country came to regard itself as a democracy.

The process of creating ourselves as a democracy is, of course, not at all complete. We continue to realize that we need to make this and that modification to our procedures in order to continue moving toward the form of government that best suits our original commitment. Very recently for instance we have come to consider the issues surrounding registering to vote - e.g. the best democratic practice is to make registering to vote automatic upon achieving the required age. Should we hold elections on the day of the week when most people are likely to vote? Or how much money should an artificial entity such as a corporation be able to spend in influencing elections? Have those who have been convicted of a felony retain the right to vote when their sentence has been completed?

There are also issues that have not yet reached the level of general public concern: for instance what amount of education in democracy ought we to require of our children?

However, the large problem about democracy facing the country today is not that of how to make our electoral practices more democratic, but is rather an attack on the very idea that we should be a democracy.

There has come to be an attempt to limit participation in voting - to erect new roadblocks to voting - and thus to attack the political expression of our country’s commitment to equality.

One of the actions in that attempt is of long standing: the practice of gerrymandering, of structuring electoral districts in such a way as to lessen the power of votes of some citizens, has a very long history, going back to the first elections in this country. In recent years, gerrymandering has increased significantly - in so many states, one person’s vote is not the equal of another person’s because elections are rigged by structuring of districts.

A second major piece of the attempt to limit democracy is more direct: it is called voter suppression: an attempt to keep certain citizens from voting in order to achieve short term political gains. The official justification for this tactic is that people ineligible to vote are voting and thus skewing the results of elections. That continues to be alleged although ALL research studies have shown that ineligible voting is negligible and can safely be ignored - moreover it is a worse democratic crime to prevent citizens from voting than having some not eligible slip through the cracks.

Both gerrymandering and voter suppression are completely anti-democratic in spirit. Those maneuvers are made by people who have lost sight of the reason that we have become a democracy, namely to fulfill the country’s commitment to the equality of its citizens. Talking about these issues is thus highly appropriate on Independence Day when we celebrate the passing of the Declaration and its embedded values.

It must also be noted that even those measures are not the end of the story. It is not that those who support them have simply lost sight of the fundamental values of this country. Rather, the increased indulgence in gerrymandering and voter suppression that we are facing today is the result of a direct attack on our commitment to equality,

There is a significant number of people in this country who flat out refuse to treat other citizens as equals, who want to be thought of as the only genuine citizens. These people tend to get described as white nationalists or white suprematists. While that belief in the excellence of whiteness is fundamental, it is not the only characteristic of these people: they tend to think that their religion is the only American one, that equality does not extend to women, that marriage can only be between a male and a female; that science and intellectual accomplishment is hooey; and no doubt other items can be put in there.

In short, it is equality that is under attack and the attempts to restrict democracy are a consequence of that.

We who are celebrating the 4th of July today should be extremely worried about the current state of our country. We need to remind ourselves in the course of daily political life of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” And that Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address recognized our basic commitment: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal".