Protect Democracy and the Take Care blog partnered to organize a symposium* with the goal of understanding the relationship between the increasing diversity of the United States, the resurgence of white nationalism and “dog whistle” politics, and the fractured state of American democracy. We asked experts from a variety of disciplines to help us think through strategies for building a stable and inclusive democracy in the face of demographic change. Here’s what we learned.
First, how we frame the problem matters. Many of the symposium’s contributors highlight the continuity between our current challenges and those of our past, questioning the view that this moment is exceptional. Instead, as Marcia Chatelain argues, there are parallels between this moment and the backlash that accompanied Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. The conclusion she draws is that the future health of our democracy depends upon on an honest confrontation of the history of racism in the United States and the disparities that continue to exist today. Joshua Inwood highlights the growing use of grassroots-led truth commissions in communities around the United States. He suggests that a similar effort focused on democracy and voting rights could be a useful mechanism for exploring our history outside existing and inequitable political structures, and for building solidarity between and among communities.
Yascha Mounk and Ted Johnson agree that historical accountability is an essential part of building toward a shared national identity and common purpose. Mounk argues for a new national vision that neither ignores continued disparities between different racial and ethnic groups, nor reifies them at the expense of the development of a shared civic identity. Johnson offers a path towards building national solidarity by reframing racism as the responsibility of the state thereby creating space for white Americans to understand their injury in racism’s collective harms, and unifying all American around our shared civil religion.
At a tactical level, building a shared civic culture will require changing how we talk about, and therefore understand, diversity and demographic change. Jennifer Richeson explains that our current language often contributes to white anxiety and motivates support for regressive and exclusionary policies. In particular, the much-touted transformation of the United States into a majority-minority nation by the middle of this century is inaccurate (in that it relies on segregation-era definitions of “whiteness”), misleading (in that it ignores the continuing disparities in status between various groups), and destructive (in that the framing of different ethnic and racial groups as winners and losers of demographic change contributes to racial anxiety). But language can also be deployed affirmatively to build tolerance and cross-racial solidarity. As Sabeel Rahman describes, narrative research performed by Demos shows that race-baiting appeals can be defused by exposing the ways in which this language is used strategically to shift public attention away from demands for government accountability.
A final clear message threaded throughout these essays is that our democracy will be transformed durably through grassroots organizing for participation and power. As Max Krochmal emphasizes, communities of color organizing and building political power has been at the heart of our most substantial moves toward inclusive democracy, both historically and today. Rahman offers the examples of the Florida Rights Restoration Campaign, which is working to restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated and Fight for 15, which is advocating to increase the minimum wage.
Policy reform can help to create an environment that encourages and facilitates increased participation and organization. As Kalb and Kuo illustrate, substantial evidence shows that means-tested social policies that stigmatize certain groups of people dampen political engagement, while well-designed policies can enhance it. Thus, we should be intentional in developing social policy in a way that encourages and facilitates inclusion.
In addition, policy reforms themselves may be necessary to shape the landscape for productive, democratic engagement. Cecilia Munoz points out that the absence of a realistic set of rules and limits for managing immigration, consistent with this country’s inclusive values and economic interests, leaves a void that the Trump Administration has filled with hostile, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. A strong, alternative vision could create a foundation for mobilization and, eventually, reform.
In sum, the message from these authors is clear. There is no path to saving our democracy that does not engage deeply with our history of racial exclusion and its continuing manifestations. In other words, the projects of democracy and racial justice are deeply and inextricably intertwined. We welcome your thoughts as we continue to explore how this understanding should influence and even reshape the democracy agenda.
The entire symposium can be found here.
Aditi Juneja is a Communications Organizer at Protect Democracy
Johanna Kalb is a Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
*The symposium was supported by the Open Society Foundations.