How much power do the masses have when it comes to preventing racial discrimination from bureacratic and state-level government institutions? As Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, demonstrates with the signing of a bill increasing legislative control on the running of elections and restricting voting by mail, it is clearly very little to none at all. While the bill may seem pure-intentioned, it specifically targets Black voters in what could be an assault on voting rights “unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era” (Morel). Tampering with fair access to voting when in a position of power is reminiscent of populist behavior, yet Governor Kemp is no self-oriented populist, rather he is a contributor to the perpetuation of homogeneity in upper levels of bureaucracy and government. In any case, Kemp’s attack on voter rights, specifically among Black citizens, represents the breaking of a vital democratic norm as well as democratic erosion on a more calculated, irreversible level than any violent civilian hate crime. As it is the voices of the elite that have the most direct influence on law-making and political agendas of politicians, the only way to eradicate racism in law-making is through the words of the elite.
Through public displays of violence against people of color and subsequent protests from minority groups, racial tensions among civilians are more visible than ever before. Social media and activist groups have exposed discriminatory behavior, using cases of extreme racial discrimination to strengthen their demand for racial equality. While racial discrimination on a civilian level is directly in the public eye, a much more subtle, yet sinister form of racial discrimination is taking place on a bureacratic level.
Following high levels of voter turnout during the last election, especially among Black voters, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, signed bill SB 202 allowing the state to take election management away from local governing authorities (Morel). The bill also outlines criminalizing the offering of food and drink to those waiting in Georgia’s notoriously long voting lines, and regulations on absentee voting (Morel). Critics have stated that provisions of the bill are obvious voter suppression tactics, and to make matters worse, they are specifically designed to strip Black communities of their remaining voting power (Morel). Not only is SB 202 a direct attack on a fundamental democratic norm, the bill projects racial discrimination “ reminiscent of the Jim Crow era” from a government level (Morel). The signing of such a bill calls into question the government’s responsibility for upholding the tenets of democracy, where if the goal is to preserve our democratic institutions, how are government officials who instigate displays of racism and violations of democratic norms allowed to continue to hold office? With an already deeply polarized public and with the knowledge that extreme polarization only accelerates democratic backsliding, how can we allow prejudiced politicians into office and expect social change? Most importantly, how can displays of racism and the violation of democratic norms be prevented when it occurs on a level that is untouchable for the average civilian?
In order to produce a solution, one must first turn to the origin of SB 202 itself. SB 202 is founded on Donald Trump’s claims that the “fraudulent” election of 2020 caused his loss in the election. As a result of Trump’s claim, members of the Republican party, such as Brian Kemp, have enacted bills to prevent so-called fraud in upcoming elections. Kemp’s authorization of voter suppression tactics is a symptom of populist behavior, where the populist leader tampers with election laws after his own successful election in order to sustain and consolidate power. However, a closer look determines that Kemp is merely a pawn in the real populist leader’s attempt for reelection. Donald Trump merely relies on members of his own party too afraid of losing favor with a volatile, authoritarian leader to, “polarize and prepare the people” for a “kind of apocalyptic confrontation” (Mueller, 42). In other words, Trump is banking on the discriminatory policies of his cohorts like Kemp to further divide and distract civilians from his eventual re entering into the political arena as the champion of the uneducated, impassioned, and left-behind conservatives. Until Trump can resurface, politicians like Kemp are the key to keeping upper levels of government homogeneous in both race and partisanship as well as in determining that Trump’s dissenters are at a disadvantage in the next election.
A desire to keep homogeneity alive in higher levels of government is reflected in a provision of SB 202, where the state has increased control over electoral processes. As Morel states in his analysis of the situation with SB 202, a sudden governmental push for control when people of color begin to gain power is not atypical. A similar pushback occurred in the early 2000s, where Black communities gaining power through membership in local school boards caused the state to pass laws allowing for the take over of school districts that were supposedly not meeting requirements. These takeovers were “highly political and racialized”, as nearly 90 percent of takeovers occurred in communities of color, and particularly Black communities (Morel). The only four states that did not pass laws allowing takeovers were states where the average Black population was less than one percent (Morel). The prevalence of state pushbacks where Black communities are more prominent can be seen as a reaction from status threat. Whites see powerful minorities not as inferior, but as “sufficiently powerful to be a threat to the status quo” and therefore causing a much stronger preference to interact with one’s own race (Mutz). While the pattern of pushback is more commonly studied among white civilians that feel economically left-behind, the same pattern of pushback and preference for homogeneity appears to apply to SB 202 and the attack of voter rights targeted at the Black community. Either way, perceived threat and a resulting pushback is racial discrimination no matter if it takes place among white civilians or white government officials. However, if the reaction stems from the insecurity of white officials, racism becomes much more difficult to reverse, as it is no longer a question of changing hearts and minds, but a question of changing the law.
With a clear attack on democratic norms and the rights of minority communities, the most pressing part of the issue is the solution. How can racism on such a bureaucratic level be reversed? The answer lies firstly with the power of the elites, and secondly with the raw numerical force of the masses. According to Gilens and Page, the economic elite and interest groups have a considerable amount of power over policy making whereas the public has very little influence. Government responsiveness to the public is very limited due to limitations on majority rule, instead allowing the economic elite that fund campaigns of certain government officials a great deal of control over policy (Gilens et. al). In order to solve a problem embedded in the law, the two speedy choices are either the economic elite or other fair-minded politicians. In areas where these fair-minded politicians are outweighed by politicians of a majority party, these fair-minded individuals would only slow down legislation processes. This leaves the economic elite as the primary tool for change in any type of policy making. In some ways, abusing a system of borderline mass clientelism is hardly a democratic solution, yet if the system can technically be abused in a negative manner, what is stopping economic elites from influencing legislation in a way that would decrease polarization among the masses? Clearly, the reason for the heavy hands of the elite would be that they are not economically motivated to act, as the tendency for the economic elite to act in their own self-interest despite the dependency of the public is strong. Chances of the support of the economic elite is weak, however, the voices of the elite in policy making in favor of democratic norms and racial equality could deter instances such as SB 202.
While the economic elite may have a degree of power, even their power cannot be depended upon. The public can easily be left alone to their own devices. In the face of a populist leader attempting to reenter the political scene and the racial polarization caused indirectly through his party, it is up to the public to educate themselves and others on avoiding emotional manipulation and polarizing forces. Citizens must be aware of their voting rights, so that in cases such as SB 202, citizens are aware that their fundamental rights are being violated. In order to preserve democratic norms and eradicate racial polarization, citizens, led by the support of the economic elite, must hold government institutions accountable for institutionalized democratic backsliding.
Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 12, no. 3, 2014, pp. 564–81. Crossref, doi:10.1017/s1537592714001595.
Morel, Domingo. “As Georgia’s New Law Shows, When Black People Gain Local Power, States Strip That Power Away.” Washington Post, 1 Apr. 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/04/01/georgias-new-law-shows-when-black-people-gain-local-power-states-strip-that-power-away.
Mueller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
Mutz, Diana C. “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.19 (2018): E4330-E4339.