America, the story goes, is an immigrant country. The American history of immigration policy and law were designed to effect majority rule. This standard way of taking its history for granted erases or exceptionalises two complicating threads in America’s making.
First, it marginalises the decimation and enclosure of indigenous people. And, second, it downplays – one could say, underwrites, in both senses – Black slavery. Both are constitutive conditions of the country’s self-formation. School textbooks and their politics of authorship bear out these erasures. Each erasure in its own way haunts the self-making of the United States as a white-majority nation, its population taken to be descended dominantly from European origins.
Most settler colonial states were ruled until their overthrow at the hands of anti-colonial independence struggles by minority white European settlers and colonial administrators. Indirect rule was simply an extension of this governmental mode. Another model was fashioned in the US, Canada and Australia. This sought to mould a white immigrant majority, British and European descended.
Indigenous populations were decimated, and those not of British and then European descent were carefully delimited to maintain the guaranteed racial demography. While slaves in pre-independence colonies like Virginia numerically rivalled free whites, by the time the 13 colonies were united in the American Revolution and declared independence in 1776, Black people made up about one fifth of the overall population.
For the next century, the US population grew by roughly 35% annually, and throughout the 19th century by 20%, fuelled by modes of ethno-racially managed immigration. Since then, and especially in this century, demographic growth narrowed over time to under 10% per year. Until 50 years ago 80% of the population, manufactured whiteness today makes up less than 70%, and is projected at current growth rates to fall under 50% in the next 25 to 30 years.
The generation born between roughly 1930 and 1950 – the lowest growth rate on record was between the Depression and the end of World War II – today controls the greatest proportion of the country’s wealth and political power. That generation was 90% white. It faced the least competition for university access and employment. By contrast, by the middle of this century, the American population will constitute a plurality. The white majority will have vanished.
The political fight we are witnessing today in America as the 2020 election takes place on November 3 – some, mostly on the Right, are calling it a new civil war – can be read in one significant way as the clawing concern by the white establishment to maintain the powers and privileges seen as its founding inheritance. To do so, the logic goes, requires institutionalising minority rule, no matter the social costs.
Minority rule, South Africans will recall all too well, requires force to establish and incessant enforcement to maintain and sustain. It requires at least sidelining and marginalising, at worst repressing and dominating the majority. Minority rule actually operates by drawing on governing technologies that incorporate all these means. The majority vote will be delimited, repressed, depressed, ignored and undermined, by hook or by crook. Their political activity will be marginalised, if not blatantly repressed, their commonalities and shared commitments divided and discounted, their interests ridden over roughshod. At the same time, the minority looking to institute or extend its rule will need to maintain or at least feign unity, buying off the sceptical, projecting narrowly defined benefits for the believing, promising the world while delivering lock-ups, both symbolically and literally.
America’s voting system
In America’s 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump lost the popular national vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes or roughly 2% (Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections). He was able to secure the presidency because of the peculiar US institution of the electoral college. Under this system, each state is accorded a number of electors proportional to its population size. But for two minor exceptions, winning the vote in a state accords all of the electors to that candidate.
Effectively winning a state by a 1% margin affords the candidate as many electoral college votes as winning it by 10 or 20%. States that tend to swing back and forth between Republican and Democratic candidates from one election to another and where the margins of victory in elections tend to be very narrow – in 2016, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – accordingly can have an outsized effect on the national outcome in contrast with states now populated with large Democratic (New York, California) or Republican (South Dakota, Kansas) majorities.
America’s ethno-racial population is shifting quickly, and increasingly in parts of the country long thought overwhelmingly white. Until about a decade ago, racial diversity mostly marked the coastal states – the eastern seaboard, the Gulf and desert southwest, the western seaboard, along with some larger cities like Chicago and Detroit. California, the largest state in the Union, already has no majority population. Nationally, the white population is ageing quickly. Black and brown populations are considerably younger. Diversity is beginning visibly to mark cities and towns in the Midwest that have long taken their whiteness as a given.
The ageing, less urban, white population has waxed conservative. The younger, more diverse population leans significantly more liberal, even progressive. Republicans, tending since the 1960s to represent whites, are seeing their future access to political power and the privileges it has long guaranteed slipping away. Members of the US House of Representatives include 52 Black Democrats but just one Black Republican. Thirty-eight of the 40 House members are Democrats. Women make up just under a quarter of House members, of whom nearly 38% are Black women, overwhelmingly Democrats. In the Senate there are two Black Democrats (one of whom, Kamala Harris, is running in this election as the vice-presidential candidate) and one Republican. Hence the desperate move by Republicans to ramp up political manipulations that will enshrine their fast-approaching minority power.
Gerrymandering is one such tried-and-tested means of holding on to power. State legislatures are tasked with drawing the lines around voter districts every 10 years, predicated on the demographic reports of the latest decennial census. Hence Republican attempts to delimit the census counting of more racially diverse residents in larger cities. Each voting district averages approximately 700 000 voters. Both Republican and Democrat state legislatures have tended to draw district lines to guarantee legislative seats for their respective parties.
But Republicans have been especially licentious in crafting contorted district lines to privilege their prospects and disfavour those of the competing party. Because the Republican Party tends to draw overwhelmingly white support, the districts reinforce racial segregation and division. Currently, Republicans control a little over half the state legislatures even while there are significantly more voters who at least trend towards the Democrats, a definitively more diverse party. In the 2018 election, for example, Republican Senate candidates lost by a total of 8% or 15 million votes to their Democrat contenders, while still retaining a majority (53-47) in the Senate.
Attempts to restrict certain voters
More directly, in the current 2020 election cycle, Republicans and their supporters have dramatically ramped up attempts to restrict the capacity to vote. The targets of this restriction are especially the impoverished and those not white, who have tended largely to vote for Democrats when voting at all. Leading conservative activists have warned that should Democrats take office they will “usher in totalitarianism”, and that this eventuality licenses conservatives to suppress the vote. Both in southern and swing states still controlled by Republican majority state legislatures, the number of polling booths available has been significantly curtailed.
Restrictive voter identification laws have been instituted. Confusing and sometimes conflicting voter requirements, not always clearly articulated, have proliferated. In tight presidential and Senate races in North Carolina, mail-in ballots by Black voters are being rejected by officials at three times the rate of whites. In some counties across California, Republican operatives have illegally placed informal ballot drop-off boxes in more liberal areas to confuse or promote discounting of ballots. All of this has been meant to make it more difficult for those who don’t have ready transport, whose employment and child-caring status means losing income and who incur costs to vote or to acquire a valid identity document, such as a driver’s licence or passport.
The ultimate and longer-term Republican strategy throughout the Trump presidency has been systematically to ensure more conservative judge appointments to the courts, especially at the federal levels and ultimately to the Supreme Court. If legislatures will trend more liberal, more conservative-leaning courts before which the constitutionality of state and federal legislation will be challenged are being designed to guarantee the delimitation of liberal governing agendas and a conservative future. Federal judges are lifetime appointments, with little possibility of curtailment.
Mitch McConnell has served as Republican leader of the US Senate for nearly the past six years, the first two of which while Barack Obama was president and the last four under Trump. While Obama ruled, McConnell deliberately blocked the vast majority of those the president nominated to the federal bench. This included a nomination to the Supreme Court whom McConnell refused to grant even a Senate hearing almost a year before Obama’s presidential term ended. Since Trump took the White House, the Republican-controlled Senate has appointed about a quarter of all federal judges. McConnell steered through to Supreme Court appointment Trump’s third nomination, a week before the presidential election and while early voting took place. Not a single one of Trump’s 53 appointed judges to US Appeals Courts, the second highest tier in the country, has been Black, and the overwhelming majority have been white men.
The Republican strategy is already paying off in Texas. A judge ruled that the Republican governor’s restriction of one drop-off box for early-voter ballots per county was unreasonable and tantamount to voter restriction. Harris County, home to the city of Houston, for example, is about 4 500 square kilometres with a population of over 4.5 million.
An Appeals Court panel of three judges, all nominated by Trump, overruled the judge’s finding and permitted the restriction. This obviously makes it significantly more difficult for all, but especially for impoverished and more diverse voters, to deliver their ballots in the early voting window, forcing more people to stand in long queues to vote – amid a spiralling pandemic. In a show of emphatic resolve and insistence on not being disenfranchised, on the first day early voting opened in Harris County, a record 128 000 people cast a ballot, some standing in a queue for up to five hours to do so. A day earlier in Georgia, a record 120 000 voted across the state, lining up for three to 10 hours to do so. To date, 10 times the number of people have voted compared to 2016 at this time. It will take more to deny democracy.
‘America is not a democracy’
The attack on majority rule nevertheless is palpable, hardly beneath the surface, even if not quite announced over a loudspeaker. Actually, even that whispered attack may be giving way to bolder declarations. Mike Lee, the US senator from Utah, an overwhelmingly white state and Republican stronghold, recently declared on Twitter – our contemporary national microphone – that “America is not a democracy”.
America, he insisted, is a “republic”, committed to extending individual liberty over all else. But that individual liberty itself is stamped with a distinctively homogenising framing: the entitlement to say whatever one wants, no matter how bigoted or threatening, so long as not aimed at any intentionally identified individual; the right to bear arms openly in “self-defense”, no matter how intimidating; the freedom to accumulate as much wealth as one wants, to do with it what one wills, at whatever cost to others and the common environment; the right to limitless private property and the restriction of anyone trespassing on it; the right to define for oneself how to act even if dangerous to the lives of others; the right to curtail others’ free expression when not comporting with sanctioned ideas; the right to restrict voting; and the right to religion so long as consistent with a narrowly defined Christian conception.
This litany of liberties is as notable for what it excludes as for what it emphasises: not the right to protest, or for women to define for themselves what becomes of their bodies, or to decent healthcare, equal education, a clean environment, a living wage, freedom from police harassment and threat, commitment to decent living conditions, and a dignified life for all. The Republican’s resort to the banner of liberty covering the coffin of democracy is nothing but George Armstrong Custer’s last stand to hold on to the slipping white power and privilege upon which the country has been historically fashioned.
Lindsey Graham, the Trump-embracing South Carolina senator, is in a contentious electoral battle with Black Democrat challenger Jaime Harrison to hold on to his seat. Graham recently drew the relation between insistent political commitment to the narrowed vision of liberty and racial possibility. Blacks, he declared in a public debate with Harrison, can go anywhere in South Carolina “so long as they espouse conservative views”. Whites, by omission, are free to go wherever they choose. Blacks once again are licensed only by embracing Republican commitments. Free, not at last, but last, if at all, and only if white mandated.
The heterogeneous majority, all the evidence is suggesting and the historical record bears out across a wide swath of societies, will not cede political power to a power-grabbing and enforcing homogenising minority without a sustained and insistent struggle. This election, at all levels, is about whether the American polity will face a future institutionalising white minority rule or keep open the possibility of a vigorously heterogeneous commons. The covers have been torn from the struggle for the sort of future the country is committed to embracing.
It is time for each to declare their commitments.