Reforming American Democracy in Pursuit of Racial Equity

Blog Post
Aaron Henry, chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, reading from a document while seated before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Warren K. Leffler / Public domain)
July 15, 2020

The democratic process in the United States has been, at a few celebrated moments, an instrument of racial progress, particularly during Reconstruction and in the 1960s. Constitutional amendments and statutes enacted during those fleeting episodes helped Black voters and their representatives gain a long-denied foothold in Congress, state legislatures, and city governments.

But for many long periods, the majority of our history from the founding to the present day, and in every region, political elites have employed the formal structures of American democracy — the electoral, legislative and judicial processes — to protect the advantages of the already powerful, not only themselves, but the white majority. Often they have done this through formal restrictions. But even obscure processes uphold the status quo, such as setting the boundaries of municipalities and school districts, or the balance of state and local authority. Nearly every political decision made in the last century, from the location of urban highways to the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from social safety net programs, can be explained through the lens of race and power.

As the nation grapples with the realities of racist police violence and the systems and structures that perpetuate America’s long history of racism and racist violence, public attention has turned first to reforming — or completely restructuring — the practice of policing. But in addition to policing, addressing systemic racism requires an awareness of the ways in which racism is embedded in and reinforced by multiple other systems, including education, the economy, and politics.

Political institutions and practices are particularly vital to racial justice because they shape what’s possible in other areas of life, including policing and schools. For example, at this writing, arcane aspects of Senate rules, and the unilateral power of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, rather than substantive debates, are limiting the possibilities for meaningful police reform legislation at the federal level. Procedural questions such as the Senate filibuster and the relationship between the federal, state, and local governments will shape police reform in the future.

A movement focused on rebuilding and redesigning American democracy can help us develop a more just instrument that consistently moves us toward racial equity and addresses past and present wrongs — if the movement takes that as its mission. We are at a moment of constitutional crisis and crisis in democratic institutions, as informal norms and values have been tested and failed. The next decade is likely to bring profound changes to our core institutions, from the structure of Congress to electoral systems and potentially even constitutional amendments. But for political reform to also serve the cause of racial justice and economic equity, it needs to put such a vision at the center, and pay more attention to race and power than traditional “good government” efforts rooted in an ideal of procedural neutrality.

Movement toward racial justice and equity requires dramatic rethinking of our political institutions, and effective reform of our political institutions requires, in turn, putting a priority on the cause of racial equity.

Since passage of the 14th Amendment, the right to vote and to have a meaningful voice in government has been the central point of conflict in the struggle for racial equity in democracy. That right — which is not universally accepted — has been slowly expanded, in the Voting Rights Act, in the abolition of poll taxes, and with the establishment of a “one person/one vote” principle of representation. But particularly since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, state legislatures dominated by white, rural representatives have propagated new voting restrictions, particularly voter identification requirements, purges of voter rolls, limits on polling locations, and redistricting that dilutes the voice of Black voters.

“Voting is a first step in a long and complex process, tedious but vital,” former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wrote recently. Other aspects of democratic reform, beyond voting rights, can also play a role in the work of achieving racial justice and equity — but only if they are developed with those goals in mind and with the voice of those most deeply disenfranchised in the current system.

Reforms intended to moderate the influence of economic power on democracy, for example, are often presented in terms of reducing corruption (a worthy goal) or ensuring “clean” elections. However, structural reforms of a certain kind can also help Black and other minority candidates who are without access to money and support from established, and often discriminatory, sources build political power. Small-donor public financing programs, such as those in several cities that match small contributions generously for candidates who reject larger donations, can effectively convert a broad base of support into the resources needed to run and be heard, and to bring new ideas to the public debate. In Washington, DC, for example, a candidate using the city’s new small-donor public financing program and advocating cuts to spending on police unseated an incumbent council member who was backed by independent spending. In New York City, where the small-donor matching program is more than two decades old, 26 of 51 city council members are members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus.

Similarly, electoral reforms such as ranked-choice voting, electoral fusion, and redistricting reform are rarely discussed in terms of racial equity. The main argument is that they would reduce partisan polarization and the predictability of winner-take-all elections, or allow more moderate or centrist candidates to challenge the “duopoly” of ideologically aligned parties. But polarization is not just a phenomenon of ideology or negative partisanship, in which voters are motivated more by dislike of the other party than loyalty to their own. It is, and has always been, a racial phenomenon. The alignment of ideology and party has been the main transformation in American politics since the 1970s, but it’s the triple alignment of ideology, party, and race — with one party both extremely conservative and overwhelmingly white — that has led to the toxic political environment of the moment. Reforms that challenge those alignments — including those that might move toward multiparty democracies, which can reflect the views of racial minorities more effectively — can play a role in racial equity.

For example, electoral reforms can also give voters more of a voice in elections, especially those who can be ignored in winner-take-all elections. Many senators, for example, receive single-digit support from Black voters but win easily with large white majorities. Many members of the House and state legislatures win in districts in which Black voters are electorally marginalized, packed into a smaller number of other districts. Ranked-choice voting, and particularly ranked-choice voting in larger, multi-member districts, can ensure that candidates have to pay attention not only to their own base, but to voters whose first choice is other candidates or parties, which may include voters of color.

Democracy isn’t just about electoral structures and processes, though. We can’t just vote and then let the winners negotiate among themselves. The public can be, and seems to want to be, more directly engaged in all aspects of governance, and those affected by policies should have a voice in those decisions. Over the past decade, experimentation has flourished in cities that seek to draw residents into the governing process in constructive ways. One powerful way to do so is by building civic power over the budgetary process. Budgets are the most fundamental expression of a community’s priorities, yet budgeting is usually a closed process.

Recent calls to “defund the police” are a passionate demand to open that process, to publicly debate the priorities given to policing, social services, education and health, and the conduct of policing. As Hollie Russon Gilman has noted, the practice of participatory budgeting — a structured system for residents to make choices about allocation of public resources — could make this possible, but at a much larger scale than current practice, one that really addresses the priorities expressed in budgetary choices.

My purpose here isn’t to redefine political reform proposals as steps toward racial justice and equity. Not all ideas to strengthen American democracy would have such an effect, though they might be beneficial in other ways. But a democracy reform movement that doesn’t strengthen the voice of those most deeply disenfranchised, historically and in the present, can’t lead to a real democracy, even if its institutions seem functional, as the US Congress seemed in, say, the 1970s. By building strong connections between these two urgent causes, we can make greater progress toward a democracy dedicated to and measured by racial equality.

Political reform advocates should keep a few principles in mind that distinguish reforms that might strengthen racial equity:

Voting rights are a priority. As Abrams said, the right to vote, and cast a meaningful vote, is the first and most important step in democracy, not one cause among many. Voting can be limited by the range of candidates available, and narrowed by the “invisible primary” of fundraising. But reforms to money in politics, primaries, or institutional structures won’t help if the right to vote continues to be a contested space. A constitutional amendment ensuring the right to vote would help here, as would Congress returning to the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court revisiting its decision in Shelby County in light of its consequences.

Reforms must encourage organizing. People don’t find their political voice alone. They find it in collaboration with neighbors, co-workers, ideological allies, formally or informally. Some approaches to political reform have discouraged organizing, such as those that treat unions — organizations of people working together for collective empowerment — as equivalent to corporations. Democracy reform should strengthen the ability of ordinary people to magnify their voice by working together, in parties, advocacy groups, labor unions, and community organizations. We’re fortunate to be living in an era of remarkable connectedness, and effective and vibrant organizing, from the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter and beyond. Reforms based on the assumption that citizens are atomistic individuals maximizing their own advantages, much like similar assumptions in neoliberal economics, cannot lead to a more racially just society. But those that build on and amplify existing organizing can.

The political process is not separate from results in policy and governance. A traditional approach to political reform treats the process of elections, campaigns, and legislation as distinctly separate from the results or the practice of governing itself. A fair process, it’s assumed, might lead to high or low taxes, robust public services or thin ones. But the experience of government itself shapes our perception of democracy, our trust in others, and our capacity to participate in decisions, as the political scientist Jamila Michener has shown in her book Fragmented Democracy. Some policies lead to deeper engagement and commitment to shared governance, while others don’t — and this has particular relevance to the democratic experience of people of color, who often experience the brunt of intended and unintended negative consequences from governing decisions, from environmental racism to economic discrimination. Political reform efforts should reach outside the traditionally defined space of electoral institutions and address the ways in which every policy decision is shaped by race, power, and history.

Reform coalitions must include those most directly affected by limitations on democracy. In the past, reform efforts have often rested on coalitions that were not broadly representative or did not include those most deeply disenfranchised. Coalitions in support of campaign finance reform, for example, were often bipartisan, at the elite level, but largely white. The same has been true of coalitions working on electoral reform or focused on polarization. Work on voting rights, on the other hand, was led by civil rights groups. Building broader coalitions that include people of color requires not just including a diversity of participants, but also listening, reframing issues, and rethinking solutions in ways that draw in a broader coalition and build racial justice into the reforms as a clear priority, rather than a hoped-for side effect. The Democracy Initiative, launched in 2013, is one example of a broad, cross-racial coalition working simultaneously on strengthening organizing, voting rights, and money-in-politics reforms. Ultimately, all reform organizations, philanthropy, advocacy, and local civic groups should consider not only whether they can broaden and diversify their membership, leadership and staff, but also whether their issue priorities reflect the views of communities of color and those most disenfranchised.

Reforming American democracy isn’t simply a matter of building institutions that can effectively make public choices with less overt conflict or partisan polarization. It involves shifting power, from those who have held it and found ways to reinforce it, particularly in the last few decades, to those who have long been denied the opportunity to build the same political power, on their own and in their communities. Connecting political reform and racial equity begins with acknowledging this ground truth.

Related Topics
The Politics of American Policymaking Voting, Electoral, and Local Reform