I am concerned about the state of democracy in the United States of America. And, to be clear, I’m not saying this because I hate our great nation. I am not naturally pessimistic. However, it seems to me that many of our fellow citizens do not really know what we have here. The rare and unique space that the United States occupies in history as a model of representative democracy is in question; our democracy is fragile.
One of the great blessings in my life has been the opportunity to travel the world. My mother, who was born in Tanzania, instilled an international perspective in my brothers and me from the start. Visiting his native country as a child exposed me to parts of the so-called “developing world” before I understood anything about politics, economics or culture. It also exposed me, from an early age, to the realities that different places live differently. As I grew older and traveled alone in Central America, this exhibition taught me contexts beyond my own personal and cultural context. Eventually, after high school and throughout my college years, I had the chance to visit southern African countries and study abroad in the Middle East. Each trip shaped my identity and my understanding of where I came from: the United States of America.
I like the phrase “we don’t know what we don’t know”. It is a lesson in humility and it makes us more open when we encounter differences. Being aware of the smallness of ourselves allows us to grow and learn. And, if we are humble, we learn the value of self-criticism of our own culture and context – and, ultimately, we gain an appreciation for our own values, opportunities, and fortunes. My travels have taught me the reality that America is not perfect, and often not “the best country in the world” in every facet (contrary to what we tell ourselves).
Sadly, part of our national narrative now reminds me of the partisan mentality – which has been summed up in the phrase “it’s our turn to eat” – of corrupt officials in Kenya. Such a mentality means that the party in power will exploit everything for the advancement of its partisan desires as long as it is in power, and the other party will then do the same when it is its turn. This my-team-only mentality accelerating in the United States eats away at the national cohesion necessary for a healthy democracy.
The rabid extremism of political hostage-taking gets us nowhere when politicians declare they will join the ‘no’ party on day one in office. Aggressively subjecting other party members to primary challenges either because they are deemed too moderate. Moreover, the gerrymandering of political maps to build extreme non-competitive districts is not only unconstitutional but eliminates the opportunities for a truly representative democracy.
Look what happens to U.S. Representative Liz Cheney for acknowledging the truth about January 6, 2021. By the way, her state of Wyoming has about the same population as Lancaster County but gets two U.S. senators, the same than Pennsylvania and all the other states. When Representatives like Cheney are threatened with primal challenges, the result is that a small band of rabid extremists on opposite ends of the political spectrum can twist the national narrative into one of mutual partisan destruction.
In my youthful travels, I naively believed that the United States would always be a beacon of hope for those who aspire to democracy. No matter what, I believed I lived in a nation that allowed us to vote and change the course of the nation, if it swung too wildly from one direction to another. I’m beginning to see that’s not a divine guarantee.
A December report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that “more than 440 bills containing provisions restricting voting access were introduced in 49 states during the 2021 legislative sessions.”
Even as this nation prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, history is repeating itself.
The most notorious use of unconstitutional Senate filibuster in American history was to support Jim Crow laws and prevent anti-lynching bills and voting rights legislation from becoming law.
Now, a few Democratic senators and their fellow Republicans want to maintain the filibuster, a Senate rule that emerged in the early 1800s to block Senate action; it can now only be overcome with 60 votes.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act after Dr. King launched a campaign to fight for the right to vote; the brutal police attack on protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama galvanized President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act.
For years, the law has been renewed on a bipartisan basis. But the U.S. Supreme Court removed the teeth of the law in 2013. And efforts to remove the filibuster to pass new Senate voting rights legislation – the Free Voting Act and the John R. Lewis Advance Voting Rights Act – thus did not succeed. far. Thus, Dr. King’s struggle continues.
The only bill, of course, is named after the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, who was nearly beaten to death by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. tests Dr. King’s optimistic belief that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.
As states pass laws to restrict voter access, the two proposed bills are much needed, especially since it seems clear now that not all Americans truly want or champion democracy.
The truth is, there hasn’t been a time when everyone has.
The Founding Fathers may have said that “all men are created equal,” but they only counted white, male landowners. The American experience has been a process of extending its promise to all people who are citizens of this nation, but we never quite got there.
If we allow ourselves to continue to be distracted, we may one day wake up as taxed subjects rather than citizens of a nation with true representation. And I might not have to travel to a developing country to see what a fledgling democracy looks like.
In a famous speech in 1957, Dr. King said that the right to vote is “not a fleeting, evanescent domestic matter that can be pushed around by reactionary guardians of the status quo; rather, it is an eternal moral question that may well determine the fate of our nation. He said “the denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
His words ring truer than ever.
Kevin Ressler is President and CEO of United Way of Lancaster County. Assistant Professor of Church and Social Change at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Ressler will present a virtual interactive learning session in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 10:30 a.m. Friday on Zoom. It will focus on the preparation needed to achieve systemic advances in social justice in 1960s America and lessons for today. Sign up at bit.ly/MLKsession. The opinions expressed in this column are those of Ressler.