What is America?

Courtesy of Brandon Day via StockSnap

January 6, 2021. A day that will forever live in infamy began as late-night tallying of the vote in the Georgia Senate runoffs extended into early morning. I finally began to wash up, ending my hours-long frenzied viewing cycle from CNN to the New York Times Election Needle to FiveThirtyEight live chat and back again, when the Reverend Raphael Warnock was declared Senator-elect by the Associated Press and his “brother from another mother” Jon Ossoff surged ahead of incumbent Senator David Perdue. Democrats were on track to recapture a majority in the Senate for the first time in six years. I lay awake in bed at 2:30 a.m., too excited to sleep, with a smile on my face and more hope in my heart than had been there at any time in the long four-plus years since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. 

But while the day began filled with promise, it devolved into a sobering reminder of just how much work needs to be done to repair the deep divisions in this country and its government. Twelve hours after I witnessed Warnock’s race being called in real time, I watched in horror on the very same television screen as far-right insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. Just minutes before, Congress had been performing its constitutional duty (over the objections of some conspiratorial Congressional Republicans) of certifying President-Elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

I was not surprised.

I was horrified, yes, but not surprised. It had been clear to me for quite some time that a Donald Trump presidency would culminate in nothing less than state-sanctioned insurrection. Violent anti-mask and anti-lockdown rioters had been storming state capitols for months with Trump’s encouragement. Michigan in particular became a hotbed for white supremacist terrorism: Aside from inspiring heavily armed militia members to break into the state’s Capitol, Trump’s tweets likely served as a dog whistle that incited a futile attempt to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Despite these atrocities, the white supremacists’ favorite candidate lost Michigan in the Presidential Election by a significant margin—2.8 percent, or 154,188 votes. But it speaks volumes that the attention surrounding these crimes overshadowed Joe Biden’s ultimately successful campaign to take back a state that had been reliably blue for decades. Even a New York Times article breaking Biden’s victory in the state couldn’t leave out the fact that voters were particularly “rattled” by the kidnapping attempt.

These voters were not alone. Even Trump’s own Homeland Security Department described white supremacists as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland” back in October, the same month that the kidnapping plot was exposed. Outside of America, the world is rattled too. When our European allies think of America as a whole, they increasingly hear in their heads the shouts of white supremacists, “gun-toting cowboys with little regard for the rule of law.”

Is this what America really is? A lot goes into the construction of a country’s identity, especially one with such a massive and diverse population. One component is indeed what those from the outside, like Europeans, consider to be “American.” On a smaller scale, this theory is borne out in Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking-glass self,” which stresses the importance of how one imagines they are perceived by others in the determination of their own self-concept. We might act in accordance with these perceptions whether we like them or not (a “self-fulfilling prophecy”), or we may alter our behaviors based on these perceptions, particularly if we feel that they do not accurately represent our true selves.

It’s hard to say what will become of the American identity. There is far more than a kernel of truth to how the world sees America: as overstepping and hypocritical. How can America’s support for pro-Democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong be taken seriously when protests against racial injustices, including voter suppression, are met with force at home? How can they advocate against foreign military intervention after their own fruitless wars?

However, these aspects of the American identity are not the whole truth, and that is what gives me hope for change. As long as Americans think critically about how they are perceived, they can move forward under different ideals while also addressing their problems. And the Democratic party, while far from perfect, is the key to overhauling our global image.

Specifically, the Democratic victories in Georgia prove that there is a path forward where restraint and integrity triumph over overreach and hypocrisy. On the day of the insurrection, a Black Reverend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church and a young Jewish investigative journalist emerged as the beneficiaries of years of hard work to turn out disenfranchised (mostly Black) Georgia voters, spearheaded by the tireless efforts of 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Abrams’ strategy in Georgia, which was deep-red as recently as 2004 when Democrat John Kerry lost the presidential race there by 16.6 percent, should serve as a template for the Democratic Party moving forward. They should move to target states with similar numbers of disenfranchised Black voters, like Mississippi. It is impossible to overstate the time and effort that went into Stacey Abrams’ turnout machine, but it is nonetheless an encouraging example of what can be done to advance civil liberties while working outside of government, as long as patience is demonstrated.

Reengaging disenfranchised voters or encouraging people to turn out will more often than not improve Democratic margins simply because Democrats’ policies are favored by a majority of Americans. Republicans know this, and that is why they’ve increasingly begun relying on voter suppression, gerrymandering and appeals to rural white voters in order to exploit the rural white skew of the Senate and Electoral College. Even with these efforts, Democrats have still managed to win the national popular vote in seven out of the past eight presidential elections. Imagine how much they would win by without disenfranchisement. Imagine how consistently they would hold majorities in each governing body without gerrymandering and the rural skew.

It is clear that Republican white America is what the world thinks of when they envision the United States. Many Republicans themselves see America this way too—as a nation of and for white people. White people enjoy extreme privilege, which was especially evident in how Capitol Police stepped aside to allow a violent mob of almost entirely white insurrectionists to storm the Capitol, even encouraging them in some cases, as the rioters paraded symbols of hate through the halls and desecrated the offices of lawmakers. Contrast this with the way law enforcement bombarded peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas. A violent mob fighting for conspiracies is treated with kid gloves; a peaceful movement against state-sanctioned murder and police brutality is faced with a show of force. The biggest difference? The racial makeup of the two crowds.

But are white America and America one and the same? White Americans are in the majority. The Census Bureau estimates that non-Hispanic white people make up 60.1 percent of the population. However, this majority is shrinking: Despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to limit immigration and step up deportations, 2011 through 2020 will likely be the first decade in which the number of white people actually declined—not even percentage-wise; more white Americans died than were born or achieved citizenship. What’s more, in another first, white people made up less than half of those under 16 years old in the estimates for 2019. Two years before these latest estimates came out, the Census had projected that whites would be in the minority by 2045; the latest estimates only accelerate that timeline.

Republicans in many ways represent the last gasp of a dwindling white majority trying to hold onto power. In pivoting from the “Compassionate Conservatism” of George W. Bush in 2000 that sought to expand their coalition to Donald Trump’s far more narrow base-first, race-first appeal, they have solidified their position in American politics as a party that must resort to shady tactics because they will never win a popular majority. Our government has intentionally been structured in such a way that enables them to achieve power in doing so. But on the same day that many Congressional Republicans abandoned democracy once and for all by rejecting Joe Biden’s victory to side with insurrectionists, we must not forget what also happened in Georgia. The policies of Democrats are favored by a clear majority that should only grow as white voters become a minority. If Democrats can register as many disenfranchised voters as possible, their growing margins will allow them to achieve enough power in the federal government to enact lasting reforms that will ensure Republicans can no longer rely on structural advantages. Then, and only then, will democracy in this country be safe, and the American identity a more accurate reflection of the diverse peoples and voices within our borders.

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