Birth of a Nation?

Photograph Source: Erik – CC BY 2.0

Aim a peashooter in any direction and you will likely hit a pundit explaining (poorly) where Donald Trump’s 75 million voters come from. Far less common is assessing the 81 million who voted for Joe Biden.

Unlike most U.S. Americans, I don’t revere the Founding Fathers the way we are supposed to. I see them as mostly a collection of the Mitch McConnells, Ted Cruzes, Tucker Carlsons, Joe Manchins, Elon Musks, Andrew Cuomos, J.D. Vances, Mike Pences and Bret Kavanaghs of their time. Admittedly, a Jamie Raskin or three was in there too.

Still, I’ll give the white and male and property-owning Founders this.  Their successful campaign to violently transfer power away from the English monarchy and the East India Trading Company to themselves compelled them to boost an idea called democracy.  A seed was planted.

At the same time, they took great care to keep access to the power of the federal government limited to property-owning white men.  Lest this just wash over us, clever ideas such as “checks-and balances” do not a democracy make. Not when most of the population is eliminated from the electorate altogether it doesn’t.

For the founding dads though, even the exclusion of the Indigenous, Blacks, women and most white people was not enough.  The system was rigged in other ways right from the start.

There is a lot of talk these days about how white power is conniving to “engineer the electorate.”  Well duh.  That’s been baked in since the beginning.  The Constitutional grand bargain known as the three-fifths clause was the mother of all engineering the electorate schemes.  Followed by the Electoral College in 1805 for good measure.  The existence of the U.S. Senate belongs on this list too.

Nevertheless, things do change.  The exalted Constitution having failed to prevent a civil war, the first breech of the white male property owning fortress came at a cost of 750,000 lives.  Alas by the time the 15th Amendment allowing Black men to vote was ratified in 1870, organizing was well underway for its violent nullification in the South.  They were functionally disenfranchised again.

This regression-to-the-mean pattern became the norm, for voting and a whole lot more.  Which makes the election of Barack Obama on November 4, 2008 truly remarkable.  Yet still misunderstood.

Some unforeseen developments made Obama’s election possible.  The 1920 ratification of the 19thConstitutional Amendment enshrining the right to vote for women was one of them.

Achieving that milestone required a long and difficult struggle. Why the difficulty?  Allegiance to patriarchy was fundamental.  Another influence was that too few U.S. Americans had democracy in their hearts.

How could they?  Enforcing white supremacy has been a higher priority since, forever.  Were that not the case, expanding the franchise and making voting easy for all would have met with little opposition.  The vast voter suppression/election outcome control schemes being enacted now would be unthinkable.

Despite the obstacles the suffragettes faced, enough white men came to support the cause.  Some sincerely.  Many because they thought, correctly, that women would add reliable numbers to the white identity electorate.  Keep in mind that in 1920, there was little reason to believe that Black people, including women, would ever make up a significant portion of eligible voters.

Enter a twist in the plot.

Having underappreciated the force of nature known as Sojourner Truth, backers of the 19thAmendment understandably did not foresee Ella Baker. Or Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisolm, Barbara Jordan, or Oprah Winfrey.  Or that by 2008 huge numbers of Black men and women, having sacrificed much to win back the right to vote and who truly do have democracy in their hearts, would stand in line as long it took to vote.  Or that there would also be social justice minded white women and even some white men willing to vote for Barack Obama.


This still does not yet accumulate all the votes necessary.  To reach his popular vote majority over John McCain in the requisite electoral college states, Obama needed lots of votes from other people of color.  He got them.

Where did they come from?  While anything but a monolithic voting bloc, their numbers had been slowly accumulating for a long time.

Even in the middle of the Civil War, the spirit of settler colonial expansion was strong enough to launch the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Slaves being unavailable, the railroad owners still wanted the work done with very cheap labor.  So, people from China were allowed in.

Soon enough that faucet was turned off.  Despite the hostility they faced, most of the Chinese already here stayed.  Their numbers grew.  Under various circumstances other Asians also arrived and didn’t leave.

In 1924 Indigenous people got the right to vote.

Food industry labor is really difficult so for decades people were brought here from the global south to grow, harvest and process food.  And to do other arduous low wage work.  Despite the hostility they encounter, they haven’t left either.

Protecting and perpetuating the whole process required an ever bigger military machine. Its mission was to violently try to subdue other people and other lands.  Whether the conquests succeeded or failed, still more people of color arrived. Because as Viet Thanh Nguyen has said, “we are here because you were there.”

Add it all up and we get to November 4, 2008 when this diverse coalition elected a Black man as president.  And reelected him in 2012.  This was more of a turning point than it seemed at the time.

A nation that does not yet exist.

One of my mentors, the late Vincent Harding, would often say he was a citizen of a nation not yet born.  Perhaps we are getting closer than we realize.

Whatever else they do, presidential elections provide a snapshot of the political moment.  As of November 2020, by that margin of 81 million to 75 million votes, a now fourteen-year-old democracy-in-progress coalition was still alive.

The 75 million mostly include white people alarmed by Obama’s election and other trends they find threatening to the established gender/race/economic hierarchy.  They remain determined to regain what they see as lost territory.

Will they?  White power has succeeded in the past at violently clawing back racial justice gains when they do occur.  The defeat of Reconstruction following the Civil War is the most significant example.

But nonviolent progress toward social justice has often been even more powerful.  It can be so now.  Since the inception of colonialism, we have the best opportunity yet to keep the awkward teenager of a multi-racial, multiethnic coalition healthy and out of serious trouble.  The numbers and a whole lot more are on our side.

How will we measure success? If a centrist Democrat gets elected President for, say, three consecutive elections will we have reached the promised land?  No. But it would mean that conditions for transformative change would be more favorable.

Some of that change can be pursued within electoral politics from school boards and city councils to the Presidency.  Keep in mind that Obama’s election would not have been possible without the earlier engagement of nonwhite candidates for local, state and non-presidential federal offices.

What obstacles do we face?  There are plenty. Our culture is infused with plantation capitalist ideology and all-encompassing violence.  The Constitution is at best obsolete. Blind faith that technology will come to our rescue runs deep.

The idea of citizenship itself requires a lot of thought, at least as we currently define it.  Indigenous people for example have valid reasons to repudiate U.S. citizenship in favor of sovereignty.

The mainstream media is an impediment because of its enormous power to restrict the public conversation. As mentioned in the first paragraph, the 81 million are mostly not recognized or discussed.  When they are, it is usually to assert some sort of failure.  Or to change the subject.

Please don’t use the f-word.

Fascism is something that happened in Europe in the 1930’s.  A lot of its theory and practice was imported from the United States.

The U.S. has had most of the elements of fascism from the beginning, including the racialized fusion of white business interests with government power.  All three branches of government repeatedly reaffirm that connection.

For these and other reasons, the f-word is a misleading description of the regression-to-the-mean threat presented by Trumpism.  Our problem is deeper than fascism.  Paradoxically, our prospects are greater too.

The misdirected “defense” of Critical Race Theory illuminates the same tension.  The common refrain is BUT IT’S NOT BEING TAUGHT!

Talk about missing the point.  In its essence, critical race theory is being taught.  Thank goodness.

Some of that teaching takes place in the schools, some elsewhere.  Meaning, among other things, that a high school senior today knows way more about slavery, systemic racism, settler colonialism, residential segregation and the role of the police in enforcing the racial hierarchy than a high school senior knew even ten years ago.  Not only that, almost every school district in the U.S. now has some sort of DEI effort.

It is the 81 million who have the wind at their back.  Wrong-side-of-history Trumpsters are trying with all their might to put the genie back in the bottle.  A dying donkey kicks the hardest, as the saying goes.

The quantitatively and qualitatively new demographics of the electorate are not the only shift that creates new potential. The extent of opposition to white male supremacy is unprecedented.  Other deep cultural changes are also underway within every sector of the population.

This is not the time to succumb to self-defeating confusion and fear.  The motto of Riverwise, a Detroit based media platform I am proud to have helped found, gets the spirt of the moment just right.  Trust the current, hold fast to one another. 

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.