How old were you when the United States became a democracy?
Until fairly recently, that would have seemed like a peculiar question. The big story of the United States is that it’s always been a democracy — that democracy was the whole point of overthrowing British rule.
That’s the story that gets celebrated on July 4, with fireworks and parades and picnics and (my personal favorite) those sheet cakes tiled with berries in the shape of stars and stripes.
And that’s the story that I learned in school as a child. I’m guessing most other people who grew up in the United States probably learned it too. But these days, if you speak to many experts on American history or political science, you’ll often hear something very different.
“As a person who studies autocracy, there’s no way I would code the U.S. as a democracy prior to 1965, before the passing of the Voting Rights Act,” Anne Meng, a University of Virginia political scientist, told me in January.
“From our measures, the United States is not the oldest and best democracy in the world. It’s one of the relatively young democracies, like Portugal,” said Staffan Lindberg, the director of the V-Dem Institute, a global democracy tracker. “In our measures, if you look at the liberal democracy or even the electoral Democracy index for us, the United States doesn’t become a good democracy until after 1970.”
It’s not that the United States wasn’t democratic at all before then. A lot of people could vote, particularly after the 19th Amendment granted suffrage to women (though in practice Black women in the South were still denied the vote). Politicians were regularly elected. But before the Voting Rights Act, Black citizens in the South were excluded from voting.
In federal elections, Southern states were effectively herrenvolk democracies, a quasi-democratic system in which only a certain racial or ethnic group is allowed to vote or participate in the government. But at the state level, those Southern states weren’t really democracies at all, many experts say, but rather single-party authoritarian regimes. Opposition politicians and parties couldn’t win power in state governments even if they were white.
That didn’t change until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and in some places later, as the full effect of the law slowly took hold.
And 1965 was really very recent.
Think of it this way: if American democracy was a person, it would be Gen X. The same age as Brooke Shields. The same age as Slash from Guns N’ Roses.
American democracy is older than me, but it’s younger than Keanu Reeves.
This new narrative has been slow to take hold. “It’s certainly only in the last generation that it’s become a mainstream statement that the United States only became a full democracy in 1965,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist who studies democratization. “That was seen as a pretty outlandish statement when I was in college.”
That’s consistent with my experience as well, even though my teachers didn’t shy away from the history of slavery and segregation. We saw the photographs of Emmet Till that had shocked the nation, and learned about the horrors of lynching as well as the civil rights movement.
But I don’t recall any of my teachers saying that the United States itself wasn’t a democracy when they were born.
One could argue that this was mere semantics, of course: that we had all the facts we needed to figure out that a large group of Americans weren’t allowed to vote, and that labeling the country a democracy or not didn’t really matter. But seeing U.S. democracy as relatively young is a perspective that can alter people’s views of both the past and present in important ways.
The civil rights movement, for instance, starts to look like a movement for democratization generally, as well as rights for one group particularly.
And the democratic backsliding that has happened in many Republican-controlled states over the last 20 years starts to seem like a persistent, recurring feature of the U.S. political system, rather than a surprising or temporary aberration.
But for me the most powerful takeaway is probably the simplest one: The United States has always, since its founding, been in a state of profound political change and disagreement. That has often been camouflaged that with shallow claims about shared democratic values. So as a journalist, I need to remember to look for the deeper, uglier reality, so that new stories about America’s democracy can be more accurate than the old ones.
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