“Shattered, washed-up has-been”—the title given to the American government by its foreign allies in a 2021 “Summit for Democracy.” Once a respected representative model, today’s American democracy is now characterized as a “washed-up” system in which the status quo is an environment where ideologies that are conveyed by powerful leaders have established a sharp socioeconomic divide. In a study published by the Pew Research Center in September of 2023, data conveyed that 70% of individuals felt as if “people in their districts have too little influence.” And, a recent AP-NORC poll—recording the opinions of constituents—reported 63-year-old businessman Mark Short stating that he “feels that [he] throws [his] vote away every time.” The unfortunate reality is that, as mainstream figureheads proceed to prioritize their own political objectives, opposing the status quo becomes a nearly impossible task. Thus, we are left with a society where influential members of the upper class drive the political agenda while underprivileged groups often do not have the same opportunities to have their ideas acknowledged.
If we’re considered to be in a modern era of “staying woke” and spreading awareness on racial prejudice, then why does the United States proceed to be centered around a system that continually reinforces past practices and both covertly and openly limits ideas for change? The answer to why the U.S. proceeds to exclude disadvantaged communities while reinforcing the stance of the financially-backed individuals pushing to maintain the status quo ultimately comes down to two primary factors: the design of the U.S. political institution and the obstacles causing a staggeringly low voter turnout.
One common element that has intensified with the expansion of today’s democracy revolves around the presence of power within the contemporary world. The U.S. is driven by a power dynamic that allows those at the top of society’s social pyramid to use their access to financial resources, reputations, and connections to authority figures to drive the political agenda. This dynamic—responsible for placing the needs of the most dominating elite at the top—results in a system in which minority groups often fail to have their opinions heard. As the privileged intensify their standing, today’s status quo continues to advantage them while concurrently making it difficult for minorities to overcome struggles.
A prime example of this instance in play involves Harvey Weinstein utilizing “his power to intimidate” those “who discovered his secrets … and methodical abuse of women” in the movie industry. Weinstein’s prestige in Hollywood allowed him to “turn others into instruments or shields for his behavior” as he had access to the resources to provide everyone with “incentives to look the other way.” In addition to allowing him to manipulate and sexually assault women for decades, Weinstein’s power provided him with access to the political sphere. He acted as a political fundraiser—openly donating over $1.4 million to candidates since 1992—and, therefore, he was able to work closely with policy-making political figures. Harvey Weinstein is just one of the many powerful people who committed a plethora of harmful actions, yet his seamlessly endless connections allowed him to do as he pleased.
This calls into question the foundation of the American government; we can see these structural inequities throughout history. The striking amount of time it took for voting rights movements to prove successful is a result of the fact that the initial design of the U.S. political institution was not intended to include disadvantaged groups. The original draft of the Constitution was essentially created to allow white, male property owners with a certain amount of land to vote, and it hence underhandedly failed to include people of color, women, and other minorities. Although the 15th and 19th amendments—which ensure that “the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude […] or sex”—were established to include voting opportunities for minorities, this process took nearly half a century to occur.
The initial failure of the Constitution to create a political institution that included equal access to possibilities for all individuals created a sense of economic and racial superiority that would become ingrained in American culture throughout time. While the voting rights of disadvantaged groups are more adequate today when compared to earlier years, “the right to vote in the U.S. has been fundamentally shaped by a pattern of institutional development that has regularly retained for the major political parties control over the parameters.”
Obstacles that result in low voter turnout serve as a primary component responsible for intensifying the societal norm of favoring the elite while limiting the opinions of minorities. Recently, attempts to “toughen voter eligibility standards, and thus voter identification legislation” have limited overall democratic participation. Some of these 2021 limitations include eradicating election day registration and creating firmer restrictions on voter ID and vote by mail. States like Arkansas have eradicated the opportunity to provide alternative forms of ID, while, contrarily, states like New York have expanded voting practices by doing away with requirements for excuses for those who wish to vote by mail. By pushing to limit the number of American citizens who participate in elections, attempts by the powerful to prioritize their political agendas have been solidified, while the voting abilities of disadvantaged groups have been further restricted. The reality is that America is being consumed by a sharp divide with leaders aiming to expand democratic practices on the one hand and groups seeking to diminish participation on the other.
The status quo of our contemporary democracy revolves around a system that prioritizes the opinions of the influential elite while diminishing the beliefs of disadvantaged groups in attempts to dominate the political agenda. The initial limiting design of the U.S. political institution and attempts made to reduce voter turnout are just some of the factors responsible for failing to provide minorities with adequate rights and maintaining the existing status quo. Ultimately, the eventual success of our American democracy—and opportunity to rid ourselves of the “shattered, has-been” title—resides in our ability to push to alter the current norm and ensure that we create a society in which all individuals are genuinely and equally represented.
Featured Image Source: Leah Millis/Reuters — PBS.org