Unpacking US style democracy (and enfranchisement)

Dear President Biden,

It seems apropos to be winding down 2021 still stuck in our house due to Covid and the weather. The case count for King County is super high at 599.5 per 100,000 and the side streets here in Seattle are still impassable if one doesn’t have all-wheel drive. Plus, it’s not as though there’s going to be some magical, overnight transformation that will have 2022 dawning tomorrow with Covid beating a hasty retreat and the streets devoid of snow and ice.

Basically, it’s a ‘here we are and there’s no percentage pretending we’re somewhere else’ kind of moment (or, really, quite a long stretch of very many such moments). Thus, it’s high time I finally pull together my thoughts and research about our system of government and how it’s time to stop pretending that the US is (or ever has been) a shining beacon of democracy.

So what is a democracy and what relationship does this form of government have to enfranchisement? It might seem like a silly place to start since surely we all know all of this, but there do appear to be important differences of opinion that we should be aware of going into this exercise. Here are the two definitions of democracy that come up with a simple Google search:

 “Democracy is a form of government in which the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation, or to choose governing officials to do so.” Wikipedia

“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Online Dictionary

“… or all the eligible members of a state…” Did you catch that?

It’s quite the pesky, loophole-ridden clause, isn’t it? It’s basically what has allowed the United States of America to claim to be a democracy all along (and the same goes for virtually every other democracy) since baked into the system is a handy way to pick who gets to be the deciders and who is deemed ineligible to participate in the deciding even though they still have to live with the consequences of what the deciders decide. This is what we’ve done from our beginning and it’s what we’re still doing.

I told you the other week that this whole sleuthing into democracy thing was tipped over by Dana Milbank’s editorial about how the US no longer meets the criteria for a democracy and rather is now an ‘anocracy,’ which is somewhere in between a democracy and an autocracy. He quotes a political scientist, Barbara Walters of UC San Diego, who serves on the CIA task force that monitors the stability/instability of countries and estimates their likelihood of deteriorating into violence as saying:

“We (the US) are no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy. That honor is now held by Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, and then Canada.”

This got me wondering about the “oldest democracy” business so I looked this up on oldest.org and found that while they do list the US first, they don’t include either Switzerland or NZ in their top 10, strongly suggesting that there’s nothing remotely settled about all of this.

I decided not to try and track down other such lists and instead did a different sort of a nerd-out focused on enfranchisement and universal suffrage. Using the oldest.org top 10 list and information about universal suffrage, I constructed the table below (the supporting links appear at the end of the table):

Purported Ranking (1-10)*CountryYear established “Democratic” GovernmentYear(s) additional people could vote**Year full suffrage
1United States1788Black men 1870; women 1920; Native Americans 1924; voting rights not secured until 1965 and there are 4 million people living in US Territories who do not have congressional representation and cannot vote for president but pay taxesNot yet
2Norway1814general suffrage granted to men in 1898; women in 19131913
3The Netherlands1815general suffrage for men 1917; women in 19191919
4Belgium1831all men 1893; women 19481948
5Denmark1849women 1915 and also all men1915
6Canada1867only those with property or taxable net worth were allowed to vote until 1920 – including women and Black men; First Canadians not granted the vote until 19601960
7Luxembourg1868everyone able to vote 19191919
8Australia1901full suffrage men 1901 and women 1902; indigenous people 19671967
9Mexico1917women 19531953
10Austria+1920women 1918; all men 18961920?
~Switzerland^1848women were not able to vote in federal elections until 1971 and at the level of constituent states in 1991^^^1991
~New Zealand^^18521853 Maori men were able to vote and in 1893 all women were able to vote1893

+Austria has an especially confusing timeline, some of which is described here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Austria and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_Austria

It was probably apparent from the outset, but the table above demonstrates what a huge difference it makes if one uses the definition for democracy that allows the loophole for less than universal suffrage (and relatedly, allows for taxation without representation, which our forefather, James Otis said in 1761 amounts to tyranny).

If, however, we insist that virtual universal suffrage (see this link for information about disenfranchisement of prisoners and felons and you will see that here too the US is an outlier, and not in a good way) is a necessary hallmark for a system of government to function as a democracy, it looks to me like New Zealand should be at the top of the oldest list and that the United States shouldn’t be on the list at all. Even if we do our usual American thing and refuse to consider the US Territories (even though they pay US taxes….), we still lagged behind most every other democratic country in the world with regard to suffrage and yet we hold ourselves out to be THE shining model that the world should aspire to be like.

No wonder we’re collectively in a world of hurt.

May we all be safe from self-deception.
May we all be willing to face our actual history and how it has gotten us to this moment.
May we all have the strength to park what we want to believe about the US.
May we accept that American exceptionalism is a dangerous idea that needs to be snuffed out.

Tracy Simpson

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