Symposium | Election 2020: What Comes Next

A Culture for American Democracy

By Melody Barnes

Tagged CommunityDemocracyequalitypoliticsRacismvoting

Two days before the election, a Trump car caravan collided with Biden supporters and social justice advocates in front of the now graffiti-covered statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Protesters have stationed themselves around the statue since the murder of George Floyd. A pro-Trump candidate for Richmond’s city council organized the convoy, according to local media. Trump flags became targets, a demonstrator said he barely avoided being hit by a car, insults were exchanged, and gun shots were reported. The raw emotion of American politics and culture were in full view, requiring us to ask: Do we have enough in common to build a multicultural democracy?

On November 3, we elected a new President, and we also got a snapshot of the American body politic and our culture. Under 6 million votes separate the winner from the loser, and citizens of the same country seem to live on different planets.

While unimaginable to many Americans, more than 73 million voters support a President who champions an immigration policy that ruthlessly separated children from their parents. It would be easier for me to retrieve my jacket at a Trump hotel coat check than it will be for 600 or so children to be reunited with their mothers or fathers; that is, easier for me to fetch a mundane item than for children to find their parents. And since March, COVID-19 has crisscrossed the United States leaving nearly a quarter million Americans dead and more than 10 million infected. But instead of drawing us closer as we fight a common enemy, COVID-19 has revealed the depths of the divide in American culture. The virus is a hoax or the virus is life threatening. Masks are evidence of concern for others or a sign of weakness and a threat to liberty. And when the White House itself became a hotspot, the band played on as the President’s supporters cheered at packed, Hatch-Act violating campaign rallies.

Is it possible for the majority of Americans to cross the chasm that separates us, and what would it take to do so?

In business it’s often said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Similarly, culture sets the table for our politics, and has a symbiotic relationship with democracy’s norms and institutions. Culture shapes our actions, habits, character, and destiny. It determines how we make decisions and respond to challenges. It becomes a powerful belief system embedded in daily life and it even fuels our democracy.

American culture will never animate a universal kumbaya moment, nor is that democracy’s aim. Democracy allows us to do the hard work of organizing citizens with different backgrounds, opinions, and goals, anticipating that unrestrained self-interest will be tempered by the benefits of a society of institutions, the rule of law, as well as tolerance and pluralism. Yet history tells us that our Constitution and laws—even as they have expanded freedom and become more democratic—are not enough. Our foundational document and laws are only as good as our culture, and culture requires community. Community isn’t just about geography, but a commitment to the common good and to achieving our democratic aspirations and, when we’ve failed to live up to them, to redress inequities.

Although national anger is real and palpable, so is commitment to community. James and Deborah Fallows have traveled the United States and written compellingly about the tension between the deep-seated concern many have about the country even as they remain hopeful about their hometowns. Many of the young adults I work with—members of Opportunity Youth United and the Aspen Institute Opportunity Youth Forum—live in large cities, small rural towns, and tribal communities, and yet they share a similar point of view.

A significant hurdle to building community today is resistance to constructing a comprehensive and honest story of our past. All societies create myths, and some, like George Washington and the cherry tree, are harmless. But in the words of James Baldwin, we’ve failed “to excavate [our] history from the rubble of romance.” A prime example: the penetrating and despicable myth of the Lost Cause spun out of the South after the Civil War. It leveraged the existing myth of white supremacy, shaping national character, as well as policies and norms that have contributed to our cultural divide and systemic inequity. In that instance, and others, as long as we treat our myths as facts and build American identity and policy around them, we make it difficult if not impossible to fully appreciate all who sacrificed to build America—indigenous and immigrant, slave and free—and what we must do to move forward, together. The “maker” versus “taker” narrative only serves to prop up a false and damaging hierarchy of human value.

Progress requires a truth, accountability, healing, and reconciliation process to build democratic culture, and a community wealth-building approach to address economic insecurity and inequity.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the most famous such process, but at least 46 countries, including Canada, Peru, Argentina, Rwanda, and El Salvador, have used a truth and reconciliation process to move forward in the wake of intractable problems. And the approach isn’t foreign to the United States. Maine and the Wabanaki tribal governments adopted a tribal-state truth and reconciliation process in 2012, and Maryland adopted a Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2019. The commissions are doing difficult work and none are perfect, but there’s much to learn from their efforts.  After studying the commissions, the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs recommends that if we scale these models in the United States, we must examine the role governments have played in the creation of inequitable policies and practices. Success also requires that the work be carefully tailored for and deeply connected to communities, thus reflecting the diversity of the country and encouraging wide-spread participation, including participation by youth and young adults. And instead of a nationwide process, a federal fund could support regional, and ultimately, state, local, and civil society efforts. A separate entity might be tasked with making recommendations to address systemic racism at the state and federal level and given the power to make structural change. While some of recommendations are preliminary, the council makes clear that “there is no doubt that the United States needs to begin a conversation around long-term reconciliation, and it requires both the systems and structures of government, and an aware and committed population, to facilitate it.” Federal support for communities taking this approach would galvanize what’s essential—long overdue steps to share and learn history based on facts, and those facts illuminating new ways for communities to move forward responsibly and heal.

Community wealth-building is one way for communities to do that work. As my co-editors and I write in our new book, Community Wealth Building and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, “the ambitious goal of community wealth building…is to simultaneously address long-standing and debilitating structures of racial inequity, redress massive disparities in wealth and influence, reinvigorate robust local democratic practice, and reconfigure progressive federalism in a manner that provides both more resources and responsibility to devolved localities without sacrificing (indeed while strengthening) needed federal protections of civil rights, labor law, environmental protections, and other required national standards.” It provides a pathway for communities to make tangible progress with federal and state support, or if the federal government is absent or hostile (an environment we must prepare for given the newly composed Supreme Court).

Cities and communities like Cleveland, Durham, Richmond, and Rochester are starting to build on this approach. They’re setting equity goals that are bold enough to animate change in practices, systems, and the distribution of resources. They’re defining wealth broadly to encompass what individuals and communities need to thrive, including the assets owned by individuals and households; business ownership; public parks, libraries, and other public and shared community assets; and social capital. And some cities are turning to the innovative use of economic tools to accomplish several goals: unlock existing community assets, develop new ones, direct the flow of assets into communities, encourage local ownership, and attract new investment.

The election is over, but our work for American democracy has just begun. As we build a shared economy and politics, we also have to dig deeper to build a culture that can nurture and support them. Communities will fuel this work—places where we can engage and understand our history, encourage healthy civic participation to reveal and address our common concerns, and innovate in furtherance of equitable wealth building and opportunity. The false choice between local and federal activity doesn’t serve our country. We need both. When the chasm is wide and deep, when many if not most feel hopeless and angry, we must turn to communities to help us build a culture that will sustain American democracy.

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Melody Barnes  is co-director of the Democracy Initiative and the Dorothy Danforth Compton professor of practice at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. From 2009 until 2012, she was director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. 

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