While voters will go to the polls on Tuesday and celebrate democracy in action, the sad truth is that the United States has never really been a functioning democracy.
Since the founding of the nation, a minority of wealthy white men has always ruled, using legal and extralegal strategies to deny representation to women, people of color, immigrants, poor people and indigenous Americans. What we forget, and must confront, is that this was by design. Explicit restrictions on popular voting were written into the Constitution and are still being used today, though in far less obvious ways.
From its inception in the hallowed halls of the Pennsylvania State House in 1787, the United States was intended to be a very limited democracy. The only part of the federal government elected by the people was the House of Representatives, yet even that chamber was skewed in favor of a minority because of the infamous Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution. The Three-Fifths Clause boosted representation of white Southerners (who were in the decided minority in the new nation) by allowing them to count every three out of five enslaved people toward the overall population of their states, thereby affording them more representation. Slaves, of course, were not legally recognized as people and had no rights whatsoever, yet they were counted as such to give enslavers a political advantage. A dock worker in Bridgeport, Conn., with zero slaves, for instance, would count as only one person in the census, but a Maryland enslaver with five slaves would count as four.
This was only the start of how the system was rigged. The president of the United States would be selected by an electoral college, not chosen by popular vote. Electors were also based on representation, which, because of the Three-Fifths Clause, again favored the slave states. So it wasn’t a surprise that 13 of the first 15 presidents (with the single-term exceptions of the Adamses) were either enslavers or proslavery.
The enslaver minority ruled the nation with an iron fist. Their politicians created gerrymandering to rig elections, slaughtered indigenous Americans by the tens of thousands, annexed Texas in 1845, invaded Mexico in 1846, spread slavery across the continent and silenced the growing anti-slavery majority through congressional “gag rules” and censorship of mail and press. Though many states extended suffrage to propertyless white men in the 1820s and 1830s, it was expressly denied to blacks, women and natives.
It took a bloody civil war and the deaths of more than 800,000 Americans to get rid of the Three-Fifths Clause and break the rule of the enslaver minority. During Reconstruction, Congress tried to change the rules, passing the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution in an attempt to give black men the right to vote and to take the United States a step closer to being an actual representative democracy.
For a brief moment, it worked.
Beginning in 1868, freedmen voted in huge numbers, often achieving more than 90 percent turnout at the polls. They voted for the South’s first black officials and public servants, as well as white Republicans vowing to reconstruct the South and fight for black rights. Dramatic changes to Southern society included the region’s first public schools, economic development, removal of property qualifications for voting and the elimination of harsh “Black Codes” aimed at restricting and criminalizing black life.
The United States’ experiment with interracial democracy, however, was short-lived. The majority of white Southerners found other ways to assert their minority rule. They launched a wave of terrorism and mass murder with the goal of preventing black voting and overthrowing the new Reconstruction governments in their states. Any man, black or white, who dared vote Republican risked being lynched, tortured or assaulted, or all three. Homes were burned, families murdered and public officials assassinated, all in the name of “Redemption” (the biblical term used by white Southerners to describe the violent overthrow of Reconstruction).
Even in the face of organized, uniformed terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, black men continued to exercise the franchise in impressive numbers well into the 1870s.
Nevertheless, one by one, Southern states were “redeemed,” white supremacy was reinstated, and blacks were re-enslaved. By 1877, an era of “Second Slavery” had begun, and gerrymandering, poll taxes, literacy tests and white-supremacist terrorism guaranteed that most blacks would be denied a political voice.
It was not until 1964 that the federal government (led by a now-liberal Democratic Party) passed civil rights legislation ending segregation and discrimination in public places. And in 1965, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act aimed at eliminating all state-level obstacles to the franchise.
But white supremacy reared its head anew. A “War on Drugs” disenfranchised black men once again, this time through felony convictions. Entire communities were declared war zones, and millions of people of color were arrested, convicted and stripped of their rights. Policymakers were explicit about their racial motives and desire to surreptitiously thwart democracy.
President Richard Nixon "emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” said Republican official H.R. Haldeman. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman was more blunt about the War on Drugs: “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” By imprisoning and marginalizing people of color, the conservative white minority could not only reassert their racial hegemony but also maintain their political domination.
The War on Drugs, which is still being waged today, has effectively disenfranchised millions of Americans. It, along with other attacks on democracy today, reveal how new and old tactics have emerged to promote minority rule: voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, arresting and deporting newly arrived Americans and gerrymandering congressional districts to deny certain groups representation.
Moreover, white-supremacist terrorism has also resumed. In an eerie echo of Reconstruction, voters favoring racial equality and democratic reforms are being attacked in the media, assaulted in the streets and murdered in cold blood. Today, as we face the ballot box once more, significant portions of the U.S. population are unable to vote, and the United States continues to fall short of the democracy its people purport it to be.