An interesting panel at the American Political Science Association conference explored whether the conceptual distinction between democracy and authoritarianism is (still) useful. In arguing against this distinction, some panelists cited ways that a particular democracy–the USA–fails to honor democratic norms. An example of our failure (which didn’t provoke any overt dissent on the panel) was voter suppression.
To be clear, I oppose the policies that are described as voter suppression. I was deposed and testified as an expert witness in the successful federal lawsuit against North Carolina, and I have done other work to promote access to voting and to attack restrictions.
However, I would make the conceptual distinction in a different way from several of the panelists. “Democracy” is not the name for a just or fair society. A democracy is a society in which majorities govern (for better or worse). Having a democracy opens vistas for developing human potential and for improving the world. But it also presents characteristic challenges.
Two endemic challenges of democracy are relevant to voter suppression. First, when the majority of people hold problematic views, we get problematic policies. For instance, requiring photo identification for voting is unnecessary and creates a barrier, but it is highly popular among a broad spectrum of Americans. Second, because majorities are powerful in a democracy, you can expect bare-knuckled struggles over who actually turns out. When such struggles go well, they become competitions to boost turnout. But you will predictably see efforts to keep the other side home.
Precisely because it matters who votes in the USA, political actors play rough here. Conceptually, that just reinforces the thesis that the US is a democracy. Nobody would bother to erect subtle impediments to turnout if the vote didn’t matter.
These examples raise the normative question of whether a democracy is the ideal system. Most people would say no, at least insofar as they would want to modify the core idea of democracy with one or more adjectives: liberal, classically republican, social, deliberative, or otherwise.
Given my way of thinking, was the US a democracy before the Civil War, before women’s suffrage, and under Jim Crow? Is it a democracy now, when more than two million people are incarcerated?
These are profound injustices, but democracies can be–and frequently are–unjust. To the degree that large numbers of people are officially excluded from the polity, the system is undemocratic. Therefore, the US was not a full democracy until the Voting Rights Act. Yet a diagnosis of these past and current injustices must put some of the blame on the democratic aspects of our system. A reason for racist policies has been the racist views of many in the white majority. A major reason for mass incarceration is popular support (across racial groups) for draconian punishments. A motive for disenfranchising women and African Americans is that voting matters.
In short, I am against saying, “We are not really a democracy and should stop congratulating ourselves on being different from authoritarian regimes.” Instead, I favor saying: “We are a democracy, and that is why we (the people) must fight–constantly, effectively, and hard–for fairness.”
See also: do we live in a republic or a democracy?; from modest civic reforms to a making a stand for democracy; what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?; “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas.”