Two Cheers for Democracy?
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's MHP here again with more of The Takeaway.
James Earl Jones: Why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?
Melissa Harris-Perry: These are the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass read here by the actor, James Earl Jones, in the 2019 performance of historian Howard Zinn's book, Voices of a People's History of the United States. Frederick Douglass originally delivered this speech in 1852 and it's now best known by the key question it poses, "What to the slave is the 4th of July?"
James Earl Jones: Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?
Melissa Harris-Perry: The scathing oration by Douglass, who is arguably the greatest statesman in American history, is a reminder of both the failures of the American experiment and the extraordinary possibilities inherent in its founding document. A new book by Professor Jedediah Purdy called-
Professor Jedediah Purdy: -Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening - and Our Best Hope-
Melissa Harris-Perry: -explores this juncture between the aspiration of American democracy and the shortcomings of its implementation.
Professor Jedediah Purdy: A lot of us think of ourselves as fighting to save democracy in the country and maybe also fighting to achieve it. When I was coming up in the '90s, in the early aughts, I think a lot of us were taught to think that democracy was where history was headed. The whole world was going to end up there and we didn't have to think very much about what it meant.
It was inevitable but also kind of superfluous. I would say we're now all thinking it is really important, but it's not inevitable at all. It's fraught and it's under threat. We might never have had it in this country and we might lose it before we ever get it. Maybe the last couple of decades haven't prepared us the best to think about what it is that we're trying to save and also to bring about.
I think the very core of it is the idea that in a world with a lot of hard choices to make, distributional choices, choices about power, who's going to have what, who's going to have what chances, who can do what, who can do what to who, those choices ought to be made by the people who are going to have to live with the results, that we ought to choose our own world and choose how we're going to relate to one another, choose our future. The best approximation to that ideal in terms of real-life institutions every day is decisions by majorities of political equals. Emphasis on majorities but emphasis very much on equals as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You make the kind of provocative statement that maybe we've never had a democracy here in the United States. Last week, I was talking with students. I had them to take the 1965 Alabama Literacy Test without quite telling them what it was, and then we had a whole conversation about, "If you had to take this test in order to be able to even register to vote, does this count as a democracy? Was there democracy in Alabama in 1965?"
Professor Jedediah Purdy: I think it's clear that there wasn't democracy in Alabama in 1965. I think that helps us to distinguish between two things a person could mean by democracy. One would just be whoever is in the majority gets to be in charge. I believe that Alabama had then, and it has had over the 20th century, majority white population. One of the reasons democracy seems scary is the thought that democracy could mean a majority disenfranchises the rest of the population and then tyrannizes them.
I think that's not democracy at all. I think we have to understand democracy as meaning that political equals take turns effectively. Ruling and being ruled. I use that word, which I think is a provocative word because I think it focuses us on the fact that democracy is about power. It's about making decisions, getting to make decisions that all of us have to live with. Looking around us and thinking, "Our fellow citizens, they're making those decisions, 'Sometimes we're going to win, sometimes we're going to lose,'" is scary.
Apparently, it was so scary to white folks in Alabama that they refused to live with it for a long time. I think what softens the edge of that is that it's not a democracy if you're not talking about people who are, in a deep way, equal making the decision together. I think that if you have an excluded or scorned cast in the population that other people literally say they can't imagine as ruling over them, then you don't have a democracy. It can fail in institutional ways and it can fail in cultural ways. I think it has often failed in both of those ways.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right now, about the dangers to our existing democracy, imperfect as it might be, what do you identify as the biggest dangers to democracy?
Professor Jedediah Purdy: I see a few dimensions of threats. The fact that the Republican Party increasingly identifies itself with the denial of valid election results and is flirting aggressively, maybe more than flirting, with the idea that if the wrong people win an election, that election can't be valid. That is the most basic existential threat to a democracy if elections can't solve the question of who's in charge.
I think there are some subtler threats. One is that the constitution itself as it's been interpreted is a deeply anti-democratic document in some ways. The Electoral College is an anti-democratic institution. The Senate is an anti-democratic institution. The Supreme Court is an anti-democratic institution. A lot of people who grew up thinking, "Basically, whatever democracy is, it probably is what's in the constitution. The Supreme Court is probably a wise and good interpreter of that idea," have been reminded that the reality can be exactly the opposite.
I guess I would put it this way. A party, Republican Party that has developed an increasingly anti-democratic politics, depends existentially on the support of an anti-democratic constitutional design. A Supreme Court that has become a leading threat to democracy values is produced and sustained by the anti-democratic presidency and the anti-democratic Senate, as well as by a constitution that, because it's so hard for living democratic majorities to affirm or amend, ends up meaning that our fundamental law is decided by a small set of judges.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jed noted a number of threats to American democracy, but one, in particular, stands out because it seems almost counterintuitive, the US Constitution itself.
Professor Jedediah Purdy: I think the problem with the constitution is that they did constitutional politics essentially once and then froze it by making the barrier to amend so high that we haven't had a meaningful constitutional amendment in 50 years. We're not currently expecting to see one anytime soon. The beauty of the constitution in some ways is in the opening phrase, "We, the people," because it says the authority of this thing, what makes it fundamental law, is that it's made by a democratic politics of people deciding together what their own binding basic law is going to be.
I think that shouldn't be once and for all. As it recedes further into history, and we can't pick that ball up again and take it in a new direction, it becomes less democratic. It becomes a kind of tyranny of the past over the present and it also becomes a tyranny of the interpreters over the rest of us. It's often been thought that it is a perfect document or perfect enough that we can just interpret it a little better and it will guide us forever into the future. I think that can't be right.
I think questions like, "Is there a fundamental right to choose abortion? Are corporations allowed to spend unlimited funds in politics? Are race-conscious policies' affirmative action permitted or not under the equality principle?" I think, fundamentally, these are questions that the people who are going to live with them have to answer. The constitution is set up now in such a way that we can't. "We, the people," is only them. It's not us. We can't be framers anymore. I think that's an unnecessarily undemocratic place for our fundamental law to get stuck.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've always thought of, in part, the value of democracy, particularly of a constitutional democracy is that democracy really should be for the losers to make it safe to lose an election, right? You ought to be able to lose an election without losing your rights, to have your preferred candidate not ascend, and yet still know that your basic capacity to engage remains safe.
Professor Jedediah Purdy: I think elections have to have two qualities in a democracy. One is that they have to actually settle some questions. I think it's good for a democracy that elections have policy consequences and policy consequences have electoral consequences. That gets you closer to people actually deciding the direction things are going to take. It's also essential that the answer from any election is not the last word and that there may be a different answer next time.
The different answer will be because the people who make the choice have turned in a different way. I think that's exactly right. Democracy has to have this fine balance of decisiveness but also openness. I think what keeps it open is equal political rights so that if there's a switch in feelings, a switch in views or people start to hope for something new or reject something they've accepted before, they can change the direction of things. If that's not possible, then you're stuck. If you're stuck with a present that people no longer want to live with, then I think your democracy is flagging.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Relative to human history, the US is still pretty young, but I wonder if we've aged up too much, if we're too middle-aged, or maybe even too elderly as a democracy. I think about Ukraine right now. No matter what side they stood on before the Russian invasion, they will talk to you about democracy, about self-determination. It's not to say it's all worked out, but, boy, there is a fire for it, a spirit for it in that very young place. Do you think it's possible to regain that national, invigorated desire to save democracy?
Professor Jedediah Purdy: Again, part of why democracy is worth saving is that it's a way that we choose our own futures. I think with the climate crisis unfolding and getting more intense the way it is with economic inequality and racialized inequality as profound as they are and the gap between our growing awareness of those and our ability politically to move the margin on them, I think we know that we desperately need more from our politics than we're getting right now.
I think we have a lot of doubts about whether we can get what we need out of it and an invigorating, mobilizing effort to bring democracy about and also say like we've been saying is just what this moment needs. Why do I think we can? I love your metaphor, but I would adjust it slightly. I don't think countries exactly get old, but their political cultures go through waves of exhaustion and renewal.
I look back maybe partly because I got part of my adult political education as a very civilian foot soldier-type in Reverend William Barber's Moral Mondays Movement, Poor People's Campaign here in North Carolina. I look back to the great fusionist movement in the moment before reconstruction was broken in North Carolina in different ways across a lot of the South and West in those decades. I also look to my own lifetime.
I think there've been felt that there've been times of political-- How can I put it? I'll put this in a different way. In the Obama campaign in 2008, which I was, again, in a very civilian kind of way, passionately and closely involved with from the beginning. Maybe some listeners will hear this differently. In the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and '20, I felt a renewal of the feeling that people can move together to change the rules of their shared lives and do that for the better.
I felt people coming alive to politics as they realized that that was true and that our institutions and our rules don't just have to be inherited from the past. They don't just have to come from someone else. We really can try to align them with what we think would be a better way to live together. I think it happens. I think it happens in these big national campaigns. I think it happens in smaller efforts. The more it happens, the more it happens in a way. It's one of these things where the reality, even the small success, even a medium success, breeds the appreciation that it's still possible and folds back into more effort.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jedediah Purdy, professor of law at Duke University and author of the new book, Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening - and Our Best Hope. Thank you so much for joining us.
Professor Jedediah Purdy: Thank you so much, Melissa. It's really, really good to talk to you.
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