"The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some," Barack Obama observed four years ago in one of the more memorable lines from his farewell presidential address.
That is indeed our great historical tradition. And we have strong reasons to believe it will survive, and maybe our democracy along with it. That's thanks to our steadily diversifying demographics — and despite the currently loud chorus with a much narrower perception of the traditional American way of life.
That view is mainly rooted in a very different time, of course. In the 1950s, about 90 percent of the nation's people were non-Hispanic whites. Now, that figure is closer to 60 percent.
A survey released in February by the American Enterprise Institute, a generally conservative think tank, found more than half of Republicans (56 percent), a third of independents (35 percent) and one in five Democrats (22 percent) agree with the proposition: "The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it."
The pollsters apparently did not define what may be alarmingly fading away. But given recent events, especially that attack on the Capitol, for millions of those Republicans it's clearly the time when white was the nation's dominant color.
But many Democrats and independents, it's safe to assume, had something else in mind: a loss of faith in American institutions and decline in community common sense.
The unwillingness of so many to accept the clear-cut, fraud-free outcome of the 2020 presidential election underscores such a loss of confidence in American democracy. In the poll, 66 percent of Republicans said President Biden's victory was illegitimate and 73 percent said his election left them frightened, angered or disappointed.
And the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories defies common sense: Only three in 10 Republicans outright rejected the QAnon claim that Donald Trump spent his presidency fighting a global sex trafficking ring that included prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites. (A whopping 43 percent said they were uncertain, while 29 percent gave that fantasy some or total credence.)
However the "traditional American way of life" is defined, Black people and other minorities have not largely benefited. The fallout undeniably continues 125 years after the "separate but equal" doctrine sanctioning segregation was set by the Supreme Court. Segregation may now be illegal, but it still endures in practice in many areas of life, creating separate cultures that prevent Americans from knowing or understanding each other.
After George Floyd's death under Derek Chauvin's knee last year, at least one Black demonstrator declared: "We don't want revenge, we just want equality." Considering the egregiously unequal treatment of Black people by white people for so long, this limit to a protester's desire is heartening — and hopefully shared by many other members of minorities who harken to the nation's founding ideals.
But such an aspiration may not be realized, so long as the main interest of many white voters is repelling the "socialist horde" so as to bring back the "great" America of before.
Our nation's changing demographics should mean that, inevitably, those voices of fear and hatred will lose sway to the growing diverse chorus insisting on policies that more effectively promote equal treatment for all.
Countermanding that optimism are those who say the Constitution itself will stand in the way so long as the Senate is preserved in its current form.
Its balance of power has always been tilted to the smaller states, and some political analysts expect things could be dramatically out of whack in two decades: About 70 percent of the people — including most of the nation's Black, Latino and Asian population — will be packed into just 15 of the most urbanized states by 2040, they predict, and so will be allowed to choose only 30 senators. That would mean the disproportionately older, whiter, more rural and more male populations of the rest of the country would have the power to send 70 sympathetic politicians to dominate the Senate.
Another analysis undercuts this concern.
The nine most populous states — in order: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Georgia — are now home to 51 percent of us.
That's an almost completely different roster than the states that might be considered the homeland for the base of older, whiter and more rural voters: the 17 that joined last fall's Texas lawsuit, which got rejected out of hand by the Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the election. Except for Texas and two other similarly demographically changing and fast-growing anchors of the Sun Belt, Florida and Arizona, they are almost all in the predominantly white South and Midwest: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.
That collection accounts for 17 percent of the population now. And demographers at the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Research Group project that share 20 years from now will be almost the same, 16.5 percent.
So they have 32 senators now and still will in two decades, which is a far cry from 70. That number is not close to the majority needed to pass legislation. Nor does it get close to the 41 votes necessary to sustain a filibuster and stop legislation.
Steadily rising numbers of non-white voters almost everywhere else are very likely to disprove those who fear control of Congress will belong indefinitely to the older, male-dominant and white-centric right. If anything, the nation may instead see growing strength on the left as multi-ethnic governance expands.
Demographics are destiny. In the next two decades and beyond, our democracy will be bettered by the other tradition, the one Obama described.
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Terrell is executive director and Goral is a communications fellow at RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan group advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.
The United States is facing a growing representation crisis. While our population continues to grow, the number of elected officials representing us at the highest levels of government has not changed in more than a century. As a result, our Congress has among the most disproportionate representation ratios of any legislature in the world.
The constituency of the average representative will be 760,000 after the upcoming redrawing of House district lines, and at the current rate of population growth that number will be 1 million by 2050. These enormous numbers compound the feelings of inadequate representation that already permeate our democracy.
Fortunately there is an easy solution: expanding the House of Representatives.
From the very beginning the members of the House have been directly elected, so that they would have "an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people, as James Madison said.
When the House first convened in 1789, its membership of 65 ensured a ratio of one representative for every 60,000 people. The number of seats in the House then grew steadily decade after decade, expanding with the population and the findings of the decennial census, until the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 capped the "People's House" at 435 members — where it had been for almost two decades, and where it remains today.
It has been more than a century since the number of seats was expanded. In 1911, there was one member for every 216,000 people in a nation of 94 million. Now, that same number of people cast votes setting policy on behalf of 331 million — leading to inadequate representation of constituents, inequalities in representation among states, and a partisan skew of what was supposed to be the body of government most responsive to the people.
Expanding the House — which we believe should be populated with several members for each of a reduced number of districts, chosen in ranked-choice elections — would have a profound impact on our democracy, solving several problems that have arisen from the current crisis of representation.
First, expansion would decrease the sway that big-money donors and political action committees have over the members. A larger House would encourage grassroots campaigning and person-to-person interactions, which cost less than current campaigns —which had expenses averaging more than $2 million last year.
This will particularly help women and people of color, who are more likely to run as challengers or for open seats, because they would have a viable chance to win while relying on small-dollar networks of donors, and fewer financial resources overall than what almost always flows to the incumbents.
Second, expansion would have an immediate impact on the diversity of Congress. Due to the incumbency advantage, individuals running as challengers have very low success rates. Unfortunately the majority of women running for the House continue to be challengers. Last year there were 192 such candidates, and only nine won. (Another 17 women won open seats, while a record 98 congresswomen were re-elected.)
Expanding the House will increase the number of open seats available to political newcomers who are more likely to be women, younger and more racially diverse. Recent projections by our organization suggest that expanding the size of the House would significantly increase the number of women on Capitol Hill.
Third, expansion combined with multimember districts would create more engaged constituencies. Because people would be able to have more direct and intimate relationships with their representatives, the nation could look forward to an increased feeling of trust in and accountability from its government.
Finally, expansion would mitigate partisanship and polarization. A larger legislature would increase opportunities for members to cross party lines and form inter-party coalitions on policies.
Despite last year's record turnout for the presidential and congressional elections, too many citizens continue to feel alienated by politics — and too many feel unheard by their elected officials. Fixing this will take commitment and leadership on the part of Congress, but it also demands institutional changes like growing the membership of the House.
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With American democracy in decline, a new report urges that reforms addressing racial and political inequities are sorely needed.
For the first time in nearly 15 years, Freedom House released on Tuesday an in-depth report analyzing America's flawed democracy and what fixes are needed. This analysis comes on the heels of the nonpartisan research organization's annual report, in which it found the United States was part of a worldwide decline in freedom.
This downward trend in American democracy, according to Freedom House, accelerated during Donald Trump's presidency and ultimately amounted to an acute crisis when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
"The erosion of U.S. democracy is remarkable, especially for a country that has long aspired to serve as a beacon of freedom for the world," the new report says. "The prominence and global influence of the United States mean that its woes have a uniquely damaging effect on democracy in the rest of the world."
Freedom House puts a number on that "erosion," giving the U.S. a democracy score of 83 out of 100 in its 2020 assessment — an 11-point drop from 2010.
"Democracy movements in other countries look to the United States for inspiration and support, and authoritarian leaders falsely point to America's problems as proof of democracy's inherent inferiority and as a sort of license for their own abuses of power," said Sarah Repucci, author of the report and vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House.
Repucci pinpointed three issues that have driven this long-term decline: unequal treatment of people of color, special interest influence in politics and partisan polarization.
The U.S. has struggled to uphold the ideal that all citizens are equal since its founding, the report says. Recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice brought a renewed focus to the country's disparate treatment of people of color, in particular Black Americans.
The increasing cost of elections and heightened influence of money in politics have also been detrimental. Americans have become more cynical because they see elected officials as beholden to these special interests, rather than their constituents.
Partisan affiliation in the U.S. has become intertwined with racial, ethnic and religious identities, meaning political attacks on the opposing party have become more extreme and personally threatening. The rise of polarization has made reaching a consensus appear impossible, and the country's two-party duopoly has only exacerbated this issue, according to Freedom House.
To strengthen these weak points in American democracy, the report recommends:
- Reducing barriers to voting and restoring federal preclearance of state voting rules.
- Ending gerrymandering by establishing independent state redistricting commissions.
- Passing legislation to improve transparency and close loopholes in campaign finance laws.
Despite the problems facing the U.S., there is still plenty of reason for hope, said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
"The threat is not over, but we have faced dark days in our democracy before and found redemption by turning back toward our core values. It is time to do so again," he said.
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Ruiz is CEO of BiasSync, a business that provides online assessments and training to help organizations reduce unconscious bias in the workplace.
There are many who could shoulder the blame for the attack on the Capitol, and many epic intelligence and security failures that remain to be diagnosed. But there is one clear cause for the paltry defense against the insurrection that should not be ignored: unconscious bias. And, more specifically, confirmation bias and affinity bias.
Warning signs were missed and even disregarded, signs that were publicly right in front of so many — and made clear ahead of Jan. 6 that the loyalists to Donald Trump posed a significant security threat.
Science and research show that unconscious biases cause all of us to make decisions about certain groups of people based on the images, messages and reinforced stereotypes we have experienced or been exposed to in our lives.
We know that law enforcement and security agencies are overwhelmingly white and conservative. We know that the participants and the planners of the attack on democracy were also primarily white and conservative. Bias can mean we give people the benefit of the doubt, and even a pass, when they are like us — and that affinity for similarity can be based on race, gender and group affiliation.
Security failures were likely partly due to unconscious race bias, favoring a certain group, and also confirmation bias, which can be defined as the tendency to gather evidence that confirms preexisting expectations — typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence.
The role of affinity bias, which leads us to favor people we have a connection or similarity to, also should not be underestimated.
To illustrate, compare the security response at the Capitol on Jan. 6 to that of June 1, when a Black Lives Matter rally across downtown Washington drew mainly Black protesters and other people of color.
The Washington Post has detailed the stark differences in the preparation for and resulting security response to each. Before the BLM protest, a secure perimeter was created around the White House and guarded by local police in riot gear, the U.S. Park Police, the U.S. Marshals Service and the National Guard. Despite the lack of any attempt to breach the perimeter, those forces dispersed the crowd by force, hitting them with batons and riot shields and deploying tear gas, flash-bang grenades and pepper balls.
In contrast, days before the pro-Trump rally an FBI report warned of a coming "war on the Capitol." Social media posts called for violence with language such as "Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood ... being spilled." It was widely known the crowd would include members of such extremist groups as the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, QAnon, neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates, many likely armed. Despite this intelligence, when the crowd arrived there were no Capitol Police in riot gear and no backup from D.C.'s Metropolitan Police or the National Guard. Those reinforcements were not activated until two hours after the attack began.
This difference is because of the classic white vs. Black chasm. Studies show a majority of Americans have a negative Black racial bias, meaning they associate Black people with being much more dangerous, violent and more likely to be criminals than white people.
Study after study blames the images and portrayals in the media (primarily news and entertainment) and family belief systems we're exposed to from a young age. They reinforce stereotypes including white is good and Black is bad.
In the days before Jan. 6, the snap judgments many made were based on such stereotypes along with the mental process that "evaluates" what is similar and known to us and what is different from us. That's how unconscious biases work. No one is immune.
Multiple law enforcement officials have belatedly questioned, The Post reported, whether "investigators failed to register the degree of danger because the overwhelming majority of the participants in the rally were White conservatives."
As a result of the failures before and on Jan. 6, at least five people are dead. Had the security apparatus and law enforcement not fallen into racial, confirmation and affinity bias traps, the prime symbol of our democracy likely would not have been desecrated.
A thorough dissection of the decisions made before and on the day the Capitol was defiled must include a real assessment of the role such biases played. This should be followed by a commitment and a plan to mitigate those dangers in the future.
Training, important for education purposes, is not enough. Awareness strategies, such as bias assessments for individuals to understand how their brains work unconsciously, should be deployed. And processes also need to be put in place for objective threat assessments and the development of response plans, especially because high-stress situations amplify the ability for unconscious biases to kick in.
The threat from extremists and insurrectionists has not ended. It cannot be ignored that those who attacked the Capitol intended to capture or kill members of Congress — and that five families lost loved ones. In other words: Our unconscious biases can kill.
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