Can a Presidential Election Save American Democracy?

22 January 2021

Back in the fall of 2020, as the post-summer threats of Covid-19 were doing little to assuage the anxieties of the upcoming American presidential election, I received a message from a colleague (and contributor to Tocqueville 21), Michael Behrent, who lives and teaches in North Carolina and had been appointed to his County Board of elections. “I wonder if one can convey to someone in France how terrible the situation is,” he wrote to me. “I feel that we spend all this time talking about how Trump has corrupted democracy, but it’s not true: he happened because the corruption is already here, in basic dispositions and ‘a prioris.’”


“Tocqueville would get it,” he concluded, “the culture that sustains democracy has withered.”


It is indeed too rarely noted that Tocqueville’s sprawling two-volume Democracy in America does not include one chapter dedicated solely to elections. In fact, in his sweeping account of almost 1300 pages, Tocqueville spends more time exploring the impact of literature and poetry (30 pages) than the election of the American President (20 pages). And yet, here we are, democracy would seem to hang in the balance of one election, one office, one person, one vote. The social scaffolding supporting democratic life has collapsed. The events of January 6 are a stark reminder of just how dangerous such electoral concentration is.


But how did we get here? W.E.B. Du Bois suggested a diagnosis when he presaged the tragedies and destruction of democracy almost 100 years after Tocqueville. “The failure of democracy,” Du Bois wrote, “lies in the fact that it has not been tried in precisely those activities of life where it is most important.”


Of course, Du Bois recognized that there had been two important waves of incomplete and devastatingly partial, but nonetheless democratic, development since the late eighteenth century. The first, during which Tocqueville wrote his magnum opus, was the wave of “democratic revolutions” spreading roughly from 1776 to 1848. Then came the second great wave of progressivism, solidarism, and democratized liberalism, to which Du Bois contributed, which fought racism, the exclusion of women, gilded age inequalities, and imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And yet, even after these great two waves, Du Bois argued, democracy would “fail” if it were evacuated from social action and practice writ large.


There are two parts to this diagnosis that offer insight into the consequences of January 6. First, and perhaps most importantly, Du Bois recognized that in many countries in the Americas, in Europe, and elsewhere, open elections had been integrated into constitutions and the basic functioning of government since the late eighteenth century. These elections were still highly restricted, in many cases excluding racial and religious minorities as well as women. Then, faced with the massive disenfranchisement of the post-Reconstruction Era, Du Bois argued time and again that the essential goal was to expand toward more inclusive, fair, and open elections.


This continued disenfranchisement along racial, gender and other lines has continued to plague American democracy in the twenty-first century. The great democratic legacy of the expansion of suffrage has, once again, been called into question. And as we saw this fall and more recently in Georgia, expanding the vote is as vital as ever.


But there is another part of Du Bois’s argument that requires special attention. Du Bois also suggests that the overwhelming emphasis on elections comes at the expense of “those activities of life where it is most important,” and as a result is directly responsible for the “failure of democracy.” This is what I would call the danger of electoral concentration.


The rise of electoral fetishism is relatively recent. Elections played a relatively minor role in the third great wave of democratization following World War II. The socio-cultural transformations wrought by decolonization, the wave of “cultural revolutions” before and after 1968, and the rise of civil society movements against single-party rule, ushered in an extraordinary process of democratization in which elections were a common consequence, but hardly the decisive factor in democratic transformation.


Like those before, this wave of democratization was incomplete and temporary. But it did show that the construction of a modern democracy could only be achieved and sustained through the democratization of a whole swath of social and cultural activities: from work and finance to our relationship to the environment, gender relations, religion and much more.


Today’s neoliberal rationalities that privilege individualism, the private sphere, and deregulated finance have undoubtedly undermined the culture that was built to sustain democracy in the post-war era. The tragedy of January 6 is that we have come to fetichize one day, one act, one all-too-brief moment in our lives. Trump lost the election on November 3, but he won the day when he convinced us that our entire democracy hinged on one vote and one person. It was in this context that spreading lies about voter corruption became sufficient to push others to call into question an entire system because of a fantastical miscount. It would be comical if it were not so terribly and utterly tragic.


Elections are an absolutely core technology within democratic practice. They are a necessary condition for a functioning democracy. But they are not sufficient, and in fact are not even adequate. When they eclipse democratic practice in other realms of social and cultural life, democracies have lost their scaffolding and are standing on stilts.


Photo Credit: Element5 Digital, via Unsplash.


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  • Ewa says:

    Yes, there is more to democracy than the peaceful transfer of power, aka elections. Democracy is the culture that allows such a peaceful transfer. But what makes a democratic culture? And what allows the defeated party to look forward to the next election rather than take up arms? This post runs the risk of replacing one misrepresentation with another. If a free democracy is not reducible to elections, nor is it reducible to the progressive unfolding of what Tocqueville called democratic social state. Indeed he worried that this precipitous unfolding may facilitate the radicalization of individualism which you call ‘neoliberal’ and he called ‘democratic.’ It would be great if this blog were to explore some of the other factors Tocqueville brings up: mores and religion, for instance, which he held to be sine qua non.

  • Keith Roberts says:

    It is true that a democracy reflects the social and psychological makeup of its time, and vice-versa. So what? If reactionaries win the democratic-ish fight over restricting and biasing the right to vote, that also reflects current society—if not precisely, then at least well enough to prevail. That would be a very bad thing for the vast majority of people, but we cannot prevent it by downplaying the centrality of the vote when the fundamental reason for the bad thing happening is just that: the vote.

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