How old were you when America became a democracy?
Until recently, that would have seemed like an odd question. The great story of the United States is that it has always been a democracy — that democracy was the whole point of overthrowing British rule.
That’s the story that’s celebrated on the 4th of July, with fireworks and parades and picnics and (my favorite) those stars and stripes berry-tiled puff pastry.
And this is the story I learned in school as a child. I guess most other people who grew up in the US probably learned it too. But today, if you talk to many scholars of American history or political science, you’ll often hear something very different.
“As someone who studies autocracy, there’s no way I’d code America as a democracy before 1965, before the passage of the Voting Rights Act,” Anne Meng, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told me in January.
“By our measures, the United States is not the oldest and best democracy in the world. It is one of the relatively young democracies, like Portugal,” said Staffan Lindberg, the director of the V-Dem Institute, a global democracy tracker. “By our measures, if you look at liberal democracy or even the electoral democracy index for us, the United States doesn’t become a good democracy until after 1970.”
It’s not that America wasn’t democratic at all before then. Many people were able to vote, especially after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote (although in practice black women in the South were still denied the vote). Politicians were regularly elected. But before the Voting Rights Act, Black citizens in the South were excluded from voting.
In federal elections, Southern states were effectively herrenvolk democracies, a quasi-democratic system in which only a certain racial or ethnic group is allowed to vote or participate in the government. But at the state level, those Southern states were not really democracies at all, say many experts, but rather one-party authoritarian regimes. Opposition politicians and parties could not win power in state governments even if they were white.
That didn’t change until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and in some places later, as the full effect of the law slowly took hold.
And 1965 was true very fresh
Think of it this way: if American democracy were a person, it would be Gen X. The same age as Brooke Shields. The same age as Slash from Guns N’ Roses.
American democracy is older than me, but it’s younger than Keanu Reeves.
This new story was slow to catch on. “Certainly only in the last generation has it become a mainstream statement that the United States only became a full democracy in 1965,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist who studies democratization. “That was seen as a rather strange statement when I was in college.”
This is also consistent with my experience, although my teachers did not run away from the history of slavery and segregation. We saw the photos of Emmet Till that shocked the nation, and learned about the horrors of lynching as well as the civil rights movement.
But I don’t remember any of my teachers saying that America itself wasn’t a democracy when they were born.
One could argue that this was mere semantics, of course: that we had all the facts we needed to understand that a large group of Americans were not allowed to vote, and that labeling the country a democracy or not really didn’t matter. . But seeing American democracy at a relatively young age is a perspective that can change people’s views of the past and the present in important ways.
The civil rights movement, for example, is beginning to look like a movement for democratization in general, as well as rights for one group in particular.
And the democratic regression that has occurred in many Republican-controlled states over the last 20 years is beginning to seem like a persistent, recurring feature of the American political system, rather than a surprising or temporary aberration.
But for me the most powerful takeaway is probably the simplest: the United States has always, since its founding, been in a state of deep political change and disagreement. This was often camouflaged with shallow claims about shared democratic values. So as a journalist, I must remember to look for the deeper, uglier reality so that new stories about America’s democracy are more accurate than the old ones.
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