University of Memphis

The Impossible Dream of Democracy by Ebenezer Akomolafe @ University of Memphis

On the 10th of October 2017, I attended a political event that was organized by the Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Memphis. The central theme of the speaker’s speech (Dinesh D’Sousza) is as follows:

  • Whether, America is great or stained by the original sins’ of the founding fathers that uphold slavery, racism and white supremacy because they had limited options. That the America was ill-founded, the founders made a mess of it because they created a country that was supposedly dedicated to equality of all men but primitively it encouraged slavery and white supremacy. The choices they faced were not either to have slavery in the union or to have a union that excludes slavery. If they have these options and go for the union with slavery then we can blame them. Rather they were faced with choices of either a union with anti-slavery principles that tolerated slavery for a time or they don’t have a union at all and the reason was because slavery was legal in every state that were together in Philadelphia so if they had chosen not to take the option to tolerate slavery those states of the south wouldn’t have joined the union at all.
  • The founders committed the original sins’ of slavery and white supremacy and this creates problem, something that America need to get away from and progress beyond. The progressive identify itself with progress, identify itself with democratic party that basically said that we are the one that are devoted to expand the franchise, we are the one to fight against oppression and give equal right to everybody; the whites, Latino, black, the immigrants etc., because we are the party of liberation but what we are seeing today is the reactionary conservatism that conserve oppression and the white supremacy and what is bad about America. To make things worst we now have the Donald J Trump who is in line with the view of the conservatives.

The argument here for me is not to doubt his fact about the founding fathers sins’ of necessity but to uphold the fact that these fundamental issues of racism, and white supremacy are evident in America even as one of the leading democracy of the world and to analyze the effect of this on the possibility and practicability of theory of democracy. Can America or any country in the world practice democracy to the letter?

Robert Dahl 1971 submit that a “key characteristic of democracy is the continuing responsiveness of government to the preference of its citizens, considered as political equals.” Dahl did not specify other characteristics that can make a system fully democratic but he assumed further that for a system to be responsive to the preferences of his citizens, considered as political equals, all full citizens must have unpaired opportunities:

  • To formulate their preferences
  • To signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action
  • To have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government, that is weighted with no discrimination because of the content or source of the preference

Dahl believed that the aforementioned points are three necessary conditions for democracy. Understanding the ill-founded nature of the American society, racial discrimination, segregation and under representation of other races and the white supremacy inherent in the American society as noted by D’Souza, and evident in the system through; employment opportunities, franchise and incarceration disparity etc. One can then ask if America is really practicing democracy to the letters. Can we then discuss democratic erosion when there was no democracy in the first place? Is democracy a state or a process, if the latter is the case, has America gotten to that state? These and many other questions become necessary to ask about the quality of America democracy.

However, if democratic erosion is the best way to describe the racial issues and white supremacy that envelop the political system in America then it means that something is wrong with Dahl’s ingredients of democracy. Another good assumption is to say that the blacks and other races that suffer the under-representation in America are not full citizens to justify Dahl’s view that these ingredients are applicable to full citizens. The implication of this is the assumption that there are categories in the citizenship of America; a situation that on its own antagonize the principle equality in liberal democracy.

Considering the level of public contestation and political participation of the non-white in America then one might say that even the acclaimed leading democracy of the world has not practice full democratic system hence democracy is an unending political process. Another fact is to agree with Dahl that democracy is an imaginary and hypothetical system. Every political system in the world has one democratic issue or the other raging from equality among the racial component of the state, functionality of their institutions, the electoral system, freedom of the press and the media etc. these and many other yardsticks to measure democracy by scholars are difficult to locate in a single political system. Hence, democracy is a beautiful political system in theory but not achievable in practice.

1 Comment

  1. Emily Masse

    December 10, 2017 at 3:30 am

    Your argument raises some very interesting points about the nature of democracy and our understanding of it. I too agree that democracy is a process which works to an ideal – one that may be impossible to accomplish entirely, not for lack of want but due to the sometimes uncomfortable change that comes with it. Dinesh D’Sousza is absolutely correct by saying that the founding fathers endorsed equality while still maintaining a system of slavery out of necessity, created by financial circumstances and pressure from southern states. In a New York Times article discussing the historical development of the current racial inequality in the U.S., Noah Feldman of Harvard notes Thomas Jefferson as the “hypocrite,” who wrote that all men are created equal while owning slaves, and Alexander Hamilton as the “hero” and staunch abolitionist. He brings to our attention, James Madison, often neglected in such discussions. Madison believed firmly in racial equality, that the right to liberty that should be maintained by African Americans as well as whites. However, Madison was primarily concerned with creating a Constitution, and therefore the Union. While he advocated Congress purchase all the slaves and free them, a policy that was quickly shut down, Madison’s personal fiscal circumstances prevented him from even freeing his own slaves. Feldman writes, “And it is misleading because it implies that as long as we avoid having racist attitudes, we can succeed in avoiding racist policies.” Feldman is exactly right. Certainly, a large part of the U.S. population still holds supremacist views, but we cannot ignore the views of those who advocate for equality. However, believing in equality is much different than creating it. To create equality, our society must face drastic changes, morally beneficial, but none the less uncomfortable for many people. Ethnocentrism, described by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam as a predisposition to see the world as us against them, is inherent in human nature. People vary in the extent to which they are ethnocentric, so those who are more ethnocentric may not be inclined to push past their ethnocentric instincts and advocate for the rights of other while some people are able to do so . However, even the less ethnocentric members of our society may succumb to ethnocentrism when/if policy change begins to truly reflect equality because, often, people may see granting more rights and privileges to the other as taking those things away from their own group. For example, Arlie Russel Hochschild uses a “deep story” to describe the mindset of Tea Party advocates in Louisiana as one of waiting in line for the American Dream and being passed by minority groups. Regardless of the reality behind the thought, it is made salient by ethnocentrism. Democracy produces constant change in society, change that makes many people feel threatened. So, we may better understand democracy with regards to racial equality as a process of overcoming ethnocentrism.

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