Written by Erin Aubry Kaplan
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Jan. 9, 2023
We talk a lot these days about the possible end of American history — the aspirational, justice-for-all sort of history — but we are fooling ourselves. The end has always been in full view, from the very beginning of the country, when our white male founders created a republic that imagined individual liberty and democracy for all, but impugned it by embedding in their creation the institution of slavery. In 1776 the end was already an encroaching reality for Indigenous people, who the founders felt had to be sufficiently contained — exterminated — for the frontier to be cleared and their vision of a new Western democracy allowed to flourish, a dynamic we now understand as “settler colonialism.”
The radical experiment of a startup government of “we the people” was always sunk by that pronoun “we,” the radical expansiveness restricted from the start (and continuing to this day) by racist, imperialist, patriarchal notions of who gets to be counted as American and who doesn’t. For 240 years, the idea of “we” has been defined at least as much by exclusion as by inclusion. Meanwhile, the American ideals of equality persist, but the people who believe in them most — Black people, women, the poor — struggle in shadow from one era to the next, with some inequalities redressed but most of them not, and new roadblocks popping up all the time.
And so this is how the great experiment of American democracy has gone, always falling short — by design — always reminding us that democracy, even as the founders narrowly conceived of it, was in danger of collapse.
The end has always been near.
The biggest roadblock may be that over the generations, we have all gotten very good at normalizing exclusion and the threat it’s always posed to democracy. This is true even among well-meaning white Americans who are panicking now, because they are only now seeing the threat. But from the beginning we learned to sever the ideal from reality. We have learned to compartmentalize and accept the paradox of America as a country with a racial caste system that theoretically offers “equal opportunity” for all.
Some people try to rationalize it; they argue that unequal outcomes are part of the deal, simply the result of a lack of effort by certain groups to take advantage of opportunity — which may not be readily accessible but is still here, somewhere, and that’s what counts. That’s what will save us. Even with a caste system, we think, surely our status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world means that everyone benefits just from being here. So great is our status that we can achieve democracy by osmosis, if not practice.
And then there’s been the capitalistic view of democracy, which conflates justice with consumerism: If everyone has an iPhone and a bank card, or a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood, we must all be on equal footing. About 20 years ago, I read a conservative analysis of the economy that posited that since a majority of people owned four things it deemed essential to life — a PlayStation, a microwave, a cellphone and a car — there was really no such thing as poverty. Inclusion is defined as ownership, not participation or fair treatment; those things are great but not guaranteed, not by the Constitution or the founders or anybody else. The mere fact that opportunity exists, possible if unreachable, keeps America thinking of itself as a shining ideal, and keeps all the bad stuff (as former MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews once blithely described racism, etc.) at bay.
I confess, I grew up with a version of that magical thinking. Black people believed in the ideal but knew very well how imperiled democracy was and had always been. We have lived the tenuousness of the experiment in every generation, to various degrees, and still do. But it’s for that reason we’ve always clung to the ideal harder than anybody else. We are the very definition of the shadow, yet we saw the ideal more clearly, this truly radical idea of common good across color lines, because we had no choice (except resignation and despair, which I learned early was not really a choice).
More than anyone, Black people know that the promise of America, as penned by men who didn’t fully grasp what they were setting forth, is greater than the sum of its sordid realities, its pettiness and violence, its current tilt toward oblivion. Black people also know how hard it is to achieve that promise. And we know that the striving toward it never ends.
We are at a dangerously nihilistic point in the long history of progress toward that promise. In yielding to the antidemocratic whims of the largely white MAGA movement, one of our two major political parties has abandoned the founders’ experiment altogether. For Republicans there is no more common good, only the preservation of power and white supremacy, which in truth have always been inseparable.
The party still uses the rhetoric of freedom and equality, but it’s twisted, hollow; it applies only to them and their efforts. Measure for measure, from curtailing voting to coddling the big lie about the 2020 election to stacking state legislatures across the country with MAGA faithful, their movement is even more openly exclusionary than what the founders had in mind. Many of us see hope that the tide may be turning, given the Republicans’ resounding setback in the November midterms, their current struggle to establish House leadership, and the waning influence in the U.S. Capitol of Donald Trump. But make no mistake, the antidemocratic extremism of the GOP is complete. Kevin McCarthy is not philosophically opposed to the faction that won’t vote for him; he is a version of it. He was made by it.
The terrible irony is that this broadly empowered faction believes that because the white majority is shrinking, democracy is dying and only they can save it, albeit by snuffing it out altogether — burning the village and all that. In the mainstreamed MAGA mindset, the true America is and always has been homogenous, strictly controlled, its mores and traditions defined by those on top. That’s hardly democracy, but it is America for sure. And in 2023, the contested idea of America remains much more important than some old Western Civ notion of democracy that dates back to ancient Rome, another world power that famously dissolved after its own experiment of “we the people” proved incompatible with empire. We have long since stopped taking lessons from history. If the America that MAGA so loves must exist without democracy, then so be it.
But here’s the hope, the thing in shadow we tend to forget: A whole group of folks, including but hardly limited to Black people, are still striving hard toward the country’s original (if unintended) promise of justice for all. The striving takes many forms, including written observations like “What Happened To Truth” and “How Conservatives Became Karens,” both in this series, that keep our racial history in view as they muse on the nature of where we are and how we got here. It’s the striving, jump-started in 2020 by the murder of George Floyd, that has the other half so alarmed, so determined to clamp down on that ideal once and for all.
MAGA knows very well this striving is serious, that it now encompasses not only justice for people but justice for the planet itself. It knows that this moment in history absolutely requires breaking what a friend of mine calls “the permanentization of self-interest” that has come to define historically white-supremacist America and its current paroxysm of suffocating panic. The panic is misplaced: What should be keeping us all up at night is the fact that none of us — no life forms, really — can afford unlimited, institutionalized self-interest anymore.
I was born in 1962, and grew up in the afterglow of the ’60s and its justice movements. I didn’t really experience the decade, but from about the age of 10 I always thought of it as America’s finest moment, its greatest, most concentrated push toward the promise of democracy for all, a push that would only be expanded upon in the future. Why on earth wouldn’t it?
I know now that the ’60s, far from inspiring all Americans, terrified a good number of them — all that clamoring for rights from Black people, women, gay people, disabled people, to say nothing of the trans and gender-nonconforming people who seem to be remaking reality before our eyes. It isn’t just the thought of sharing power that’s so discombobulating; that can be managed. It’s the idea of sharing psychic space in a country conceived and run for so long by white men and white people. The democratic promise of America was always an incursion into terrain that was more sacred than a neighborhood or a school or a lunch counter or a voting booth; those were affronts to supremacy, but there were always strategies around it. There is no getting around true equality, because it gives you no room to subvert or control it.
The GOP sees multiracial democracy as tying its hands, literally. To see the hordes waving their arms at rallies, or brandishing flags and banners and weapons at the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, is to see them saying quite clearly: We will not be tied. Democracy for them is about absolute freedom of movement, making their own incursions wherever and whenever necessary, consequences be damned. In their minds, it is their movements that must determine all of ours. This, to them, is the American way.
But we — Americans of the better angels, for lack of a better phrase — know better. It’s why we can’t lean into defeat, toward foregone conclusions and gloomy assumptions about the end of our own history. We have to embrace the greatest American privilege offered to all: not unchecked power, but belief in the promise of the opposite.
It’s been said that you can’t love if you’re always bracing for impact, and the same is true of striving toward democracy — you can’t do it if you’re also waiting for a hammer to fall. Nor can we follow the MAGA/Trump warrior creed that it’s all about winning, losers go home. No: This is home for all of us, and it requires our vigorous defense, now and in the future. Because in 2023, despite what looks like evidence to the contrary, we indeed still have a future that can ― in theory ― finally break from our past.