Reassessing American Democracy: The Enduring Challenge of Racial Exclusion

American democracy is in trouble. Since the 2016 election, a sizable literature has developed that focuses on diagnosing and assessing the state of American democracy, most of which concludes that our system of government is in decline.[2] These authors point to the rise in party polarization, the increasingly bipartisan abandonment of the norms of the democratic process, the rise of populism, the degradation of the public sphere, and the proliferation of gerrymandered districts and voting restrictions to illustrate the breakdown. And while attributing varying levels of significance to these factors, a common theme is that American democracy, once stable, is now threatened. On closer observation, however, it is unclear that American democracy was ever really as healthy as it may have appeared. This Essay argues that the stability of the American system has always been built and dependent upon racial exclusion; over the course of our history, each major movement toward a more fully representative participatory democracy has prompted a backlash that was resolved only by the adoption of policies that worked to undermine the full citizenship of communities of color. The point of this reframing is not to suggest that the United States has made no progress over its history. Nor does it diminish the accomplishments of those who have advocated for equality over the course of our history or minimize the importance of working to repair our democratic institutions. Rather, this reframing is necessary to avoid romanticizing our democratic history and to inform the choices in this moment as we seek to stabilize our country.