Democracy Is Not Exclusive

Democracy Is Not Exclusive

The For the People Act works to fulfill the democratic promise of the United States. Those who seek to thwart it do not actually want a democracy.


House and Senate Democrats have made passage of the democracy-strengthening For the People Act a top priority. Given our intense partisan divisions, it is not surprising that Republicans have not yet gotten on board. But this isn’t and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. There are good reasons for principled Republicans to embrace the For the People Act just as many congressional Republicans embraced the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s.

Like those historic pieces of legislation, the For the People Act is about moving us toward “a more perfect union.” It includes provisions to protect voting rights and make voting easier, reduce the power of big money in politics, and prevent gerrymandering that gives unfair political power to people who did not earn it at the ballot box and denies others the representation they deserve.

The ideas in the For the People Act are supported by two-thirds of the American people, an extraordinary level of consensus in our partisan times. This is the time to strengthen our national commitment to a more fully inclusive and representative democracy.

We are just a few years from the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. War with England was already underway when that manifesto for freedom and individual liberty was signed, printed, distributed, and read in public squares. It inspired many Americans to take up arms in the cause of independence.

Many of the same people who put their lives on the line in a fight against the world’s most powerful military force were disenfranchised in the country they helped bring into being. Nearly all state laws restricted the right to vote to white men who owned property or paid taxes.

Within a few years of the adoption of the Constitution, some people began to understand the wisdom of making our constitutional republic more inclusive and democratic and took small steps in that direction. New states joined without property-owning requirements and all states did away with them by 1856. Over the 100 years following the Civil War, the right to vote was extended to Black men, to women, to Native Americans. In 1943 the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was overturned.

Getting the Constitution’s “We the people” to mean all the people has been a long, often brutal, and sometimes bloody struggle against those who saw every expansion of the franchise as a threat.

And sadly, those struggles continue today, more than half a century after the passage of robust civil and voting rights legislation. We still have political leaders seeking to maintain or strengthen their grip on power by denying others the ability to participate.

But that is not a strategy for a healthy democracy. And it is not an effective long-range strategy for any political party, given another milestone that this country will soon reach.

For decades, our country has been becoming more diverse racially, ethnically, culturally, and religiously. Sometime around 2045, if not sooner, non-Hispanic white Americans will no longer be a majority. White Christians are already no longer a majority.

While some people view this diversification as a threat to a real or imagined America of the past, others, including my white father, welcome it.

When the United States is a so-called “majority minority” country—that is, when no single group represents a majority demographically—all groups will be required to work with others to be successful democratically. Our growing diversity can either be a source of increased conflict or it can be an incentive toward respectful pluralism and expanded political engagement.

Every political party and movement that is not grounded in exclusion should be working actively to become more fully inclusive and to welcome the full participation of all people. They should not tie their identities and futures to a restrictive vision of democracy that is doomed to failure.

The 2020 election was, in the opinion of federal officials, the most secure in the country’s history. A record number of Americans participated in spite of the extraordinary challenges imposed by the pandemic. But rather than celebrate that civic participation, too many state legislators are relying on false claims about election fraud to try to pass new restrictions on voting. They are plotting to rig the redistricting process in ways that violate meaningful representation of communities in order to maximize their own power.

That kind of response is a throwback to the era of Jim Crow. It represents our past, not the possibility for our future.

It is time for people of good faith, whatever their political party, to commit to a future in which all Americans are encouraged and enabled to participate in the civic life of their community and country. It is time to pass the For the People Act.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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