One of the most fundamental and basic rights as a U.S. citizen is the right to vote. The U.S. prides itself on its inclusive democracy and universal suffrage. However, the U.S. government cannot boast an inclusive and widespread democracy when it actively targets and excludes certain pockets of the population. Latinos in the U.S. have long been the target of disenfranchisement through the U.S. government’s control of citizenship and immigration laws. There are deep rooted historical events and policies that continue to have lasting effects to this day. Such magnitude of disenfranchisement undermines American democracy because it does not live up to basic Dahl-onian principles of democracy where “Citizens must be able to formulate their own preferences, signify those preferences through individual or collective action, and have their preferences weighed equally.”
The most blatant example of such disenfranchisement is with the people of Puerto Rico. The United States fails this test miserably when looking at policies regarding Puerto Rican representation in government. Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship in 1917 with the Jones Act. However, because Puerto Rico remains a territory and not a state of the U.S., Puerto Ricans do not get representation in the Senate. Puerto Rico has a Resident Commissioner in the House of Representatives with limited voting privileges and that is it. Puerto Ricans living on the island are regarded as second-class citizens as they are not given the full benefits and rights guaranteed by the U.S. constitution for all citizens unless they move to the mainland. While Puerto Ricans on the island might be able to formulate their own preferences, they are not able to signify those preferences through individual or collective action because they don’t have a proper representation or vote in Congress. Similarly, they also don’t have their preferences weighed equally against other states, or the rest of the U.S. constituency more generally. The mechanisms and grand scale of disenfranchisement were, unfortunately, on public display recently. After Puerto Rico was hit by two consecutive category five hurricanes, it was left with devastating structural damages and floods. Despite the urgency of the situation the United States government had a delayed response. To make matters worse, certain provisions of the The Jones Act, whos original purpose since 1917 was to protect and stimulate American Corporate interests on the island, legally prevented relief supplies from arriving to Puerto Rican ports unless they were transported in ships that were American made, owned, and operated. The Trump administration faced many criticisms for not reacting sooner to the situation. Though not as quick as some would have hoped, Trump did eventually send aid, and temporarily suspended the Jones Act, though he only did so for 10 days.
Though there is much room for critiques regarding the Trump administration’s management or lack thereof of this crisis situation, I was more struck by a different observation. Personally, I find it difficult to fathom how the very same country that is dancing on the edges of human rights international law because of its innovative use of drones and attacks, imposes such specific, outdated, and impractical regulations and restrictions such as that of American vessels provision of the Jones Act. But upon the realization that the reason for the enforcement of an outdated policy was not for lack of preference formulation or signaling, on behalf of Puerto Ricans, but rather by the lack of responsibility the U.S. government has to weigh their signaling equally, or in this case take it into consideration at all. As long as the U.S. government keeps a tight grip on restricting voter rights of Puerto Ricans, the less accountable it has to be to them.
This targeted disenfranchisement towards Latinos, and people of color in general, has been the status quo for as long as the United States has been a nation. Whether it was more systematic as it was with slavery, through the genocide of Native Americans, or more temporary as it was in WWII with Japanese Internment camps, the disenfranchisement and treatment of hyphenated American identities as second-class citizens, or worse, has been present in every era of U.S. history. These tragic events were possible through the perceived lack of accountability by the U.S. government to the disenfranchised.
However, more often than not, these instances of grave democratic erosion in the United States are not seen as undemocratic enough to raise any red flags about democracy in the United States. Huq and Ginsberg actually engage with this interesting observation: “While we do not wish to minimize the human cost of these historical instances, none of them has been accompanied by an actual reversal of democratic norms.”
Which begs the question: If genocide, the dehumanization of black bodies, and putting putting people in concentration camps don’t constitute as enough of a reversal of democratic norms, then what does?
While I do agree that everything you’ve discussed in terms of America’s poor treatment of people of color throughout its history, and its failure to recognize members of the potential electorate, I believe it’s important to distinguish between what these actions would mean if they became a new trend and what it means if it’s happened throughout the course of the nation’s history.
According to Rustow, in his paper on Democratizatoin, defining those inside certain political communities is essential in order to ensure that a nation’s democracy functions properly. By not doing so, the community is weakened by possibilities of certain groups shifting political blame for other groups, for discrimination, and even potentially for populist leaders to arise attempting to take advantage of the blurry political community boundaries. This sort of clear political definition still doesn’t truly exist in the United States, as shown by your example of Puerto Rico, the struggles of other Latinos to gain full voting rights, and the political challenges that all people of color face in the country.
With this in mind, however, I would argue that the United States’ weakness with defining political boundaries and including portions of its population is a long-lasting, ever-present failure in American democracy, instead of a reversal of any sort of democratic norm. From this, then, the American democracy doesn’t live up to Dahlian principles of democracy. It hasn’t been able to fully do so since its inception, since its struggles with “Citizens… [formulating] their own preferences…” and political community definition have led to a major war and decades of continued struggle. What’s important, though, is that democratic backsliding must be a change away from the democratic norms that have existed within a country already. The United States has never fully fulfilled this democratic norm, and so it’s more accurately a democratic shortcoming, not a sign of democratic reversal.
This post raises an incredibly important question – when, if at all, will the United States stop disenfranchising citizens of color? It also brought to mind the staggering number of black americans without the ability to vote. The NAACP reports, “African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population” and “one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.” This is problematic, because as the NAACP continues, “5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.”
This directly impacts their ability to vote, and Sarah Kerby of the Center for American Progress finds that 13 percent of all African American men are denied the right to vote based on a past felony conviction. Dorothy Roberts of the Stanford Law Review notes “Excluding such huge numbers of citizens from the electoral process substantially dilutes African American communities’ voting power.” The sheer numbers behind this are shocking, because a sizable portion of black men are simply unable to participate in the most fundamental of American political engagements. These figures are not commonly discussed and are not actively being fixed, but they should be. We discuss a lack of diversity and we wonder about fixing structural issues within our government. Ending the disenfranchisement of incarcerated black men, Puerto Ricans, and countless other Americans of color should be the priority because it is the root of structural inequality in America.