Grammy was lamenting on the phone last night that this world is not one that she would want to be growing up in. Scanning the news, opinion columnists seem to be questioning how much longer we will be waking up to democracy for breakfast. Recent New York Times columns titled “Dancing Near the Edge of a Lost Democracy,” “What Has Happened to My Country?” and “What’s at Stake in These Elections” capture society teetering on the edge. Looking at the New York Times archives the day before Barack Obama’s midterm elections in 2014 did not reveal such alarmist attitudes towards the future of democracy. The current political climate hints to a democracy in free fall, and we can watch it flailing towards the center of the earth or begin to think up some sort of remedy.
Every generation has different formative experiences that they carry throughout their lifetimes. Our current moment is one of intense cynicism, polarization and bitterness. Democratic backsliding defined as the decline of democratic characteristics of a political system is often brought up in conversation and class. It’s not hard to come up with examples that demonstrate the phenomena: Donald Trump’s declaration of victory in the 2020 election before all the ballots were counted, the Jan. 6 Capital riot, the rollback of the federal protection of a woman’s right to an abortion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court case, Trump’s storage of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago compound, the violent assault of Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, the rise and acceptance of political violence.
Democracy evolves throughout time shaped by our own ideas and perceptions. In western culture democracy goes back to ancient Greece, though women and slaves were not included in the political system. American democracy began quite similarly, only granting white men with property the ability to participate — excluding women and slaves. In a class I took on the United States Constitution we debated whether or not we consider the Constitution to be pro-slavery and anti-feminist. The 3/5 compromise in article one, section two increased the political power of slaveholding states and is a glaring example of the racism baked into American democracy from the start. Reformers like Frederick Douglas believed in the higher law of the Constitution which allowed for him to advance the democratic ethos that we must champion. The great challenge of American democracy is the conflict between white supremacy and the democratic ethos Douglas believed in.
There are many strands that exist in American democracy. When Barack Obama took office, he ordered the bust of Winston Churchill to be removed from the Oval Office due to Churchill’s egregious actions in Africa. When Trump took office, he requested that a painting of Andrew Jackson be hung on the wall. These past presidents place themselves amongst and align themselves within the patchwork of American democracy. Trump aligned himself with the strand of populism that Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan promulgated. Trump’s populism spoke to those who felt left behind, particularly after the 2007 repression. Though he coupled economic unrest with ideas of replacement theory, dog whistle politics and flat out racism — exposing an underestimated ideology in American politics and echoing the racist history of the country.
In Margaret Renkl’s “What Has Happened to My Country” Renkl discusses the themes concurrent with democratic backsliding and quotes a line from Yeats’s “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Thinking back to what my grandmother said on the phone, each generation has seen things fall apart. From hearing about relatives that died in the Holocaust to the rampant fear of the Cold War that entailed students hiding under desks to protect one from all out nuclear war (which thankfully did not occur). Now we watch the phantasmagoria of politics play out, breathing a sigh of relief that Democrats won control of the Senate. Though the outcomes in states with gubernatorial races are of utmost importance as states control elections. Without sensible governors, the foundation of democracy which rests on a free and fair election system is at risk if Trump runs again in 2024 and attempts to contest a loss. The reverberations of Trump’s actions in 2020 were felt in Brazil’s past election cycle where Bolsonaro contested the election before accepting defeat.
Joan Didion quotes Yeats in The White Album stating, “ The center was not holding ….” to convey the disillusionment of the late 1960s and 1970s. This disillusionment straddled politics and culture as Didion discusses events like the Manson murders, the Black Panther party and the pervasive drug use at the time. With Renkl quoting Yeats’s famous line in reference to American politics, one must wonder whether there is a political or cultural center to America. There are multiple stands of belief in our democracy and multiple subcultures present that are continuously weaving together. The American political tradition responds to cultural pluralism through enacting laws that champion and increase diversity. Though, the equality that Frederick Douglas believed in is consistently questioned as is evident when the supreme court hears arguments against affirmative action. My fellow columnist Gabe Levin ’26 discusses this at length in his most recent column. Cultural pluralism is expanded at universities by extending the canon taught in English classes, though it moves backwards in schools across the country when books and critical race theory are banned. One can consider this a side-effect of the culture wars, a culmination of fear in society or the anxiety of a democracy with no center and a troubled past.
Rebecca Sparacio (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].The Space Between runs every other Tuesday this semester.