Republican rallies supporting candidates for the upcoming US midterm elections have campaigned on increasingly blatant racist rhetoric. Some media outlets have claimed that the uptick in racist speech to garner voter support is undermining American democracy. These claims frequently omit any substantiation demonstrating that racism is linked to democracy: is a non-pluralist society necessarily less democratic? The current uptick of overt racism may be undermining democracy in the US by creating a limited definition of who counts as “the people” within a democratic polity, undermining mutual toleration, increasing polarized two-party politics, and challenging key democratic norms which threaten consensus on who is included in the American political community. Yet racism in US democracy goes beyond modern racist rhetoric, returning to a fundamental debate on how democratic American democracy ever was when it is built on the politics of exclusion.
At a rally for North Carolina’s Republican candidate for US Senate, former President Donald Trump asked gathered supporters if they knew what the n-word was. When several people in the crowd responded to this provocative question, the former President revealed his misdirection. He meant the “nuclear word,” discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threat toward Ukraine. The former president has not shied away from racist rhetoric in the past, and in light of his recent overtly racist remarks toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, Donald Trump is embracing racial polarization as a platform for far-right Republican candidates in the upcoming midterm elections.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) recently described Black Americans as criminals at a rally in Nevada, claiming that Democrats “want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) argued at a rally in Arizona that “illegal aliens” are “replacing” American workers and taking over American culture. These statements are a problem for US democracy. Not only are they racist prima facie, they are also exposing rifts in American society which could threaten core democratic norms.
In 1943, scholar Joseph Schumpeter noted that defining democracy is difficult because there is no such thing as a common will of all people. Seventy-three years later, Jan-Werner Müller argued in his book What is Populism? that alternatives to democracy, especially populism, appeal because they set defined boundaries on who “the people” are that a government is supposed to represent. The idea of a common will is appealing against the division and compromise that democracy entails, where no universal common will is possible to define or represent.
Müller argues that democracy has a boundary problem, meaning that there is a question of whose will is and is not represented in a representative democracy. Racism in US politics is providing a solution to those problems, defining the will and desires of White Americans against minorities. A 2018 Pew Research Poll found 86% of White adults surveyed believed that their vote would be counted as they intended in upcoming elections compared with only 73% of both Black and Hispanic adults surveyed. This 13-percentage point gap demonstrates that Black voters do not have faith that their votes will be accurately represented, showing that US democracy is plagued by a boundary problem that has made Black Americans feel excluded.
Setting deep dividing lines along the axis of race is undermining another key norm of US democracy: mutual toleration. Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss the importance of shared codes of conduct, “the soft guardrails of democracy,” in their 2018 book How Democracies Die. In the US, they highlight mutual toleration as key in perpetuating respect for democracy, meaning that the two parties see each other as legitimate electoral rivals. Racism is preventing mutual toleration. For example, Sen. Tuberville stated that “they,” meaning Democrats, want to give reparations to “criminals,” meaning Black Americans. Rep. Greene also made her racist comments explicitly partisan, stating that “Joe Biden’s (emphasis added) 5 million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you….” By placing race at the center of partisan identity, Republicans are making an explicit appeal to White Americans about the legitimacy of their party against Democrats in league with non-White actors, undermining the will of each party to tolerate the other.
The result of this is a breakdown of national unity. Dankwart Rustow argued in his 1970 article “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” that the only necessary background condition for democracy is national unity, meaning a defined political community. Racist rhetoric in current Republican campaigns is undermining who is included and excluded within America’s political community, pushing against the limits of a nationally unified polity along the lines of race. This goes beyond the political community alone. A 2018 study conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 92% of Black Americans believe discrimination against them exists in America. There is an underlying lack of unity when such high levels of discrimination are perceived against one societal group.
American democracy has historically been successful because of compromise between White-controlled parties on who should be included. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the norm of mutual toleration came at the cost of racial exclusion. In 1877, post-Civil War reconstruction ended in the South in a compromise to maintain national unity, leaving the region in the control of Southern Democrats who disenfranchised Black voters and failed to respect the basic civil rights of Black Americans. The two-party system succeeded in the US because of broad coalitions, meaning that Democrats worked to maintain the votes of Southern Democrats who were farther to the right on social issues, especially race. These Southern Democrats are now predominantly Republican voters.
The modern breakdown of historic compromise and toleration between parties demonstrates that the success of American democracy is partially because of the failure of either party to adequately address racial exclusion. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, mutual toleration was possible when American politics was dominated by White people. Now that enfranchised and elected voices are more diverse, the racist underside of American politics is again being exposed. Racism poses a genuine threat to US democracy in the modern day. As the compromise of parties to tolerate racial exclusion is breaking down, the stability of a democratic system which was based on acceptance of that exclusion may also be under threat.