We tell tales of democracy: tales of a system in which all receive equal voice. Representation exists on all levels and if you speak, your voice will be heard. Yet, in many ways, when taking a closer look, these tales become myths.
On Friday, a district court in Texas ruled that several districts in the state had been illegally gerrymandered. The court found that state lawmakers participated in discriminatory districting, violating the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of The Constitution. The court also issued statements with complete clarity, writing that “map-drawers acted with an impermissible intent to dilute minority voting strength.” Of course, the case may still end up in the Supreme Court with a completely different ruling, but even if the ruling remains upheld, the same lawmakers who created these gerrymandered maps could be the ones rectifying them in the future, which would just begin the same process over again. In this sense, while the news from the ruling certainly shines light on the brokenness of democracy, it probably cannot solve the problem in a meaningful way.
Texas stands out as one of the states that most egregiously violates these constitutional protections. Just look at this picture of Dallas-Fort Worth and the shapes of these state senate districts:
Population centers are cut into pieces, and tiny strips remain in one district and then suddenly change to the next. Look at District 10, for example, where notable State Senator Wendy Davis won election based on a wave of minority support in the early 2000s. Davis gained fame from mounting a ten hour filibuster in the Texas State Senate against a bill that heavily restricted access to abortion. Even though Davis won re-election in 2011, Republican lawmakers clearly intended to make her path much harder by altering the districts from the map in 2001. Davis’s district was centered around a minority community in Fort Worth, guaranteeing that these people would have a voice in the state senate. Republican lawmakers put parts of this community in multiple other rural districts, controlled by senate republicans, where their voices would not be heard. In addition, they gave Davis’s district a chunk of heavily white Denton County, giving hundreds of thousands of white voters the possibility of having their influence outweigh the concerns of minority constituents.
Of course, no one should be surprised by these actions. Racial hierarchy in America has been maintained through the disenfranchisement of marginalized groups for hundreds of years. Immediately after the Civil War, Southerners enacted violent campaigns to prevent black Americans from voting, killing tens of thousands. When reconstruction ended, the Klan and white citizens used poll taxes, voting restrictions, intimidation and lynchings to make voting impossible for most African Americans in the South. In Texas, the government used the “white primary,” which prevented Latinos and black Americans from participating in most primary elections. However, even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and its extension in 1975, intimidation remained a crucial weapon to prevent many people from voting. It often relied on individuals threatening or destroying the property of black and Latino leaders who challenged the power of the white community. Today, some have seen Trump’s call for “election observers” in the 2016 presidential election, especially in cities such as Philadelphia with a large black population, as a continuation of these actions.
Yet this history of discrimination has been “historicized,” buried in the past, so that those tales of democracy can shine out today. The gerrymandering of Texas districts shows how preventing minority groups from expressing their voices continues. Even more, voter ID laws, which distinctly target poor and marginalized people, have become a potential weapon in elections by the Republican party. In fact, Texas passed some of the most stringent voter ID laws in the same year of its redistricting that would have left 600,000 Texans without an ID to vote. While the Supreme Court thankfully struck down the law as discriminatory, other states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Wisconsin and Tennessee passed similar laws that restrict voters.
Our democracy is broken and always has been. While some people see this issue of voter disenfranchisement as a problem inside our democratic system, I would argue that it actually defines our political system. We are inherently “undemocratic.” After all, only until relatively recently have black, Latino, and even women (the majority of our country) been able to vote. When we tell ourselves that “democracy” defines America, we tell ourselves a myth. Any system built on this suppression of voices and a policy of white supremacy cannot be considered democratic at all. No one considers apartheid South Africa a shining example of democracy as their government held elections from an all white voter base. Yet we glorify our own history as one founded on freedom and we believe that it persists today.
These tales of democracy continue with phrases such as “leader of the free world.” When the media, politicians, and everyday Americans repeat the epithet “leader of the free world,” it not only legitimizes action abroad, but maintains the myth of freedom at home. A badly drawn district or a voter I.D. law becomes a small blip on the march to democratic progress, tiny mistakes in an otherwise “free world.” It allows us to ignore how the whole system of allocating representatives based on geography and state lines heavily favors white voters, who tend to gain representation from living in rural areas. It allows us to ignore that to influence state laws such as voter ID and gain political power, which is almost completely controlled by wealthy white people.
To solve issues of disenfranchisement, we cannot just win a court case or fight a law. Racism will rear its head in other forms, often more informal and subtle, that need to be addressed by a complete change to our political system, not meager fixes. We need a political system where all people have a voice and the power to act to improve their own lives. While there is need for political and economic revolution, this may not be achievable at the moment. If we want to make change within the system, minority groups need representation at all levels of government. In countries such as Argentina and Cyprus, women and minorities are guaranteed seats in the parliament, allowing them to have not only a voice, but power in the process. If we can guarantee power to these groups, and not just listen to them, then some parts of systematic disenfranchisement and racism could start to unravel. Our current “democracy,” however, simply ignores this, and no tale of democracy can wash over our reality.