The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The fight isn’t over whether America will be a democracy, but what kind of democracy

Voting rights protesters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg)
Placeholder while article actions load

I and others often say that the partisan conflict in the United States puts our democracy at risk. And it’s true. But that framing implies that the core conflict is about democracy — as if we have one side that supports fair elections while the other prefers dictatorship.

But the real conflict is over what kind of democracy the United States will be: White Christian Wealthy Male Semi-Democracy or Multiracial Multicultural Social Fuller-Democracy.

Though for most of its history, the United States has had elections and a constitution, the country was nonetheless fairly undemocratic, certainly by today’s standards. Most White women and Native and Black Americans couldn’t vote. People who weren’t wealthy, White male Christians didn’t hold positions of power.

But through the 19th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a broader cultural shift toward inclusion, the United States has become much more democratic. Yes, wealthy, White Christian men still have outsize power. White voters are the majority. Congress remains predominantly male. And it’s not at all clear that a Muslim or atheist could win the presidency. But those who aren’t wealthy, White Christian men have more cultural, economic, social and political power than ever before. The overwhelming majority of adults can vote. White women and people of color hold some of the most powerful jobs, and non-Christian and LGBTQ Americans are at the center of some of our most important social movements. The United States in the past few decades has become more of a Multiracial Multicultural Fuller-Democracy.

Moreover, those who aren’t White, male and/or Christian have both grown in number and concentrated in one party. As a result, the Democratic Party has won three of the past four presidential elections (and the popular vote in all four) even as the majority of White Americans opposed it. And with its political power, the party is pushing for policies that make the nation more socially democratic in the manner of countries in Europe, with policies such as universal paid leave and prekindergarten, which the Biden administration has proposed.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr.'s opinionsFollow

At the same time, wealthy libertarians, conservative Christians, multiculturalism opponents and others who are most against multiracial, multicultural and/or socially democratic policies have also concentrated into one party. The clear majority of Americans, including a large bloc of Republicans, support abortion and LGBTQ rights, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and tax increases on the wealthy. But opponents of such policies have gained control of the GOP, which is now dominated by officials advancing unpopular ideas such as cutting Medicaid funding and banning abortion.

So the conflict in America — what has driven us into our uncivil war — is the deep divide between the progressive policies and multiculturalism of the Democratic Party and the anti-multicultural, plutocratic ethos of the Republican Party.

And that conflict over policies and visions is increasingly about democracy, too.

This last wasn’t inevitable. The Republican Party could modify its goals to appeal to more Americans. It could keep its platform and bet on winning elections because of anti-Democratic sentiment. But instead it is taking a third course — trying to make the nation less democratic, or at least to stop it from becoming more democratic. Through aggressive gerrymandering, voting restrictions, changes to election procedures and other methods, the GOP is working to make it possible to win with as few voters as possible. And it has created a fail-safe for when it does lose: courts stacked with partisan judges who will block basically any Democratic policy initiative. This week’s decision by five GOP-appointed U.S. Supreme Court justices allowing an egregious Alabama gerrymander that violates the clear spirit of the Voting Rights Act was just the latest illustration of the danger.

I don’t think that most rank-and-file Republican voters hate democracy, broadly defined. But the dominant groups in the Republican Party aren’t on board with Multiracial Multicultural Social Fuller-Democracy, because it too often results in policies they oppose. And if the choice is between pursuing greater racial justice for Black Americans or, say, banning books and writings about the United States’ history of racism to weaken the push for racial justice, this Republican Party will opt for the latter.

Democrats, to their credit, generally respect the notion that a more democratic nation is a good thing, and thereby try to appeal to a broad swath of voters instead of seeking to rig the rules in their favor. That’s one reason they nominated a candidate (Joe Biden) closer to the political center than his rivals in 2020 and why there was no Jan. 6, 2017, insurrection to stop Donald Trump from taking office. (Of course, Democrats are doing some gerrymandering, too, but that’s largely to give themselves a fair chance, since Republicans blocked the democracy-reform bill that would have limited partisan gerrymandering by either party.)

Consequently, right now, the fates of Multiracial Multicultural Social Fuller-Democracy and the Democratic Party are conjoined in the United States — and that’s a big problem for Multiracial Multicultural Social Fuller-Democracy. Because to prevent further erosion, Bush/Romney Republicans will have to back most Democratic candidates. And Democrats and independents will need to turn out to vote in large numbers in 2022 and 2024, the way they did in 2018 and 2020. Bush/Romney Republicans are understandably resistant to voting for Democrats, since they disagree with them on many core policy issues. And many Democrats and independents who voted for congressional Democrats and Biden are understandably frustrated with the party’s governing failures and might not be eager to vote for them again.

And that’s why it appears increasingly likely that Republicans will win the 2022 and 2024 elections, even under our current rules. Once in power, however, expect Republicans to speed down their chosen semi-democratic path.

U.S. elections are designed to be contests over policy, ideology and governing performance, not over the democratic system itself. But that is where we are. For now, everyone who wants to live in a country that is really democratic has to become comfortable with a country that is really Democratic.