O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe
(There’s never been equality for me,
For freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
—Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
At its inception, the United States was neither a democracy nor did it claim to be. Read the Founding Fathers’ declaration in The Federalist Papers, No. 63, and you will see how they proclaimed—in capital letters—that the new republic would guarantee “THE TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE PEOPLE, IN THEIR COLLECTIVE CAPACITY, from any share” in the government. Recall the three-fifths clause that counted the number of enslaved people in fractions to determine how much representation white slave owners would have in Congress. The Founders shut out their mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters from any meaningful participation in government.
Women secured the right to vote only in 1920, forty-two years before Native Americans won the right to vote in every state. Voting rights for Black Americans, despite passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, have remained a struggle as old as the Republic.
Through various progressive movements, the United States embraced rights and freedoms not enjoyed in other countries. This enhanced record allowed the United States to assume the position as the vanguard of democracy, thanks in part to mythmaking that promoted American civilization as the democratic model, the shining city on a hill.
Now those hard-fought rights are coming under attack. After years of professed exceptionalism, the United States can no longer even claim to be the beacon of democracy.
The total collapse of American democracy, once consigned to the realm of hyperbole, is now spoken of as a clear and distinct possibility.
The 2020 midterm elections, which did not result in a Republican red wave, as many had predicted, caused many Americans to declare that the threats to democracy had been staunched. That euphoria faded as the House Republicans, with their razor-thin majority, began taking control.
Hard-right lawmakers, many of whom cheered on Jan. 6 insurrectionists, will play an outsized role in Congress after extracting significant concessions from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The new speaker wasted no time in showing that the hard-right lawmakers held sway. McCarthy said he was open to expunging the impeachments of the former president, whose second impeachment —a bipartisan vote—involved his incitement of the insurrectionists. Note to readers: Trump calls McCarthy “my Kevin.”
With hard-right lawmakers calling the shots, the insurrectionists will have full involvement in the newly formed Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, which will investigate the agents pursuing separate inquiries involving the insurrections and the 45th president.
American political culture has changed. Not long ago, if you asked Americans whether far-right paramilitaries would storm state capitol buildings or lay siege to the U.S. Capitol, they would tell you: not in this country. Today, right-wing militias run rampant. At many public events, you can expect them to show up, armed and masked.
These sinister encounters suggest that the insurrectionists—and the people who inspired them—merely lie in wait. January 6 was a dress rehearsal for the big show.
The insurrection shook the nation and raised the question of whether the United States could ever maintain its boast of being the world’s first multi-racial democracy. Viewers around the world saw videos of rioters beating police officers with clubs and crushing them against walls. The “QAnon shaman,” who wore a horned headdress and animal pelts as he sat in Nancy Pelosi’s Speaker’s chair, became the face of the insurrection.
What has become of America? With each passing day, threats to the American political order abound. Heavily armed militias espousing white supremacy. Record numbers of hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities. And Republican representatives embracing Christian nationalism over the U.S. Constitution.
In June, an emboldened Supreme Court, wielding its new 6-3 majority, reversed Roe v. Wade, stripping women of constitutional rights they had enjoyed for half a century. The court’s decision suggested that contraception, marriage equality, and voting rights could be the next targets. One by one, the lights in that shining hilltop city have been going out.
The United States is not alone in experiencing upheaval in its political establishment. Across the globe, autocrats have risen to power on narratives of national decline, the culprits being liberalism and the minorities who defend it.
At the May graduation of my daughter at Kenyon College, I listened with rapt attention as commencement speaker Sheila Coronel, who heads an investigative journalism unit at Columbia University, urged graduates to stand up to the autocrats. “Strongmen don’t really go away,” said Coronel, who was a young reporter during the repressive regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. “Like bears in winter, they fall into a deep sleep and awake once they can feed again.”
Autocrats do not gain power by lies alone: they wait until a society is sick, riven by divisions and fear. Only then can they feed, as Coronel says. In America today, the conditions are ripe.
In Weimar Germany, one word ignited hatred of the press: Lügenpresse, or “lying press.” The Nazi Party had a simple strategy to counter bad press: accuse journalists of lying. Why waste time defending yourself when you could be on the attack. No matter how long or well-supported an argument was, the Nazis responded, “Lügenpresse.”
In the United States, a similar phrase emerged: “fake news.” Popularized by the 45th president, it was designed to foster distrust in journalists scrutinizing his administration’s many misdeeds. Adolf Hitler once said that “great liars are also great magicians,” and the key to that sorcery was tapping into feeling, unadulterated by rationality.
The former president may not seem eloquent to most, but to his supporters he was spellbinding, promising them a reckoning for the elites and a return to the America of myth. His rhetoric evokes 1933 more than 1776.
On January 6th, the Oathkeepers and Proud Boys brought their assault rifles to Capitol Hill, showing the world that they were no weekend warriors. As they set foot on the marbled floors of the capitol, these paramilitaries walked in the footsteps of the German Brown Shirts.
American institutions have proven more resilient than those of Weimar Germany, but they have only survived the first skirmish. The former president is still firing up his base, stoking political violence. The Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, among the paramilitary groups loyal to the former president, are willing to shed blood for him. With an activist Supreme Court, millions of Americans face seeing their rights legislated out of existence.
The battle for democracy and racial equality has moved to the fields of truth and narrative. I recently guest-edited a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly review in which some of our finest poets, essayists, and fiction writers tackled the challenges facing American democracy.
Fresh from his success with the bestselling Caste Matters, Suraj Yengde, one of India’s leading scholars and public intellectuals, demonstrates how the roots of the current political tensions can be traced to America’s caste problem established in the earliest days of settlement.
The standouts also include meditations on Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again.” From Paris, the American poet Henri Cole says: “If empathy is our most important human characteristic, it is the feeling I take away from ‘Let America Be America Again,’ which speaks for poor Whites, Negroes, ‘red men,’ farmers, immigrants (Irish, Polish, and English), and descendants of those ‘torn from Black Africa.’”
Hughes tapped into the dilemma many Americans face. Although the marginalised populations he invokes have not benefited from the freedoms afforded to the elites, they are often called upon to help save the Republic. Like now.
Hear what Hughes is saying:
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Even though it was not made for people like Langston Hughes, the United States had the flexibility and capacity to become an America for people like him. America can change, and has changed to protect the freedoms of its people. That is why we must remake America again.
Davan Maharaj, the former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is a member of Guardian Media Limited’s board of directors. This opinion piece is adapted from his foreword for a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, “Fractured Union: American Democracy on the Brink.” Log on to–https://payments.lsa.umich.edu/mqr/mqr-order-form/