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American Democracy and the Challenge of Identity Pluralism
An interview with Hakeem Jefferson


Hakeem Jefferson argues that the United States is experiencing a democratic backsliding. He calls for deep institutional reforms that aim at better reflecting the American public, such as expanding the number of judges in the Supreme Court or having a US Senate apportionment based on state population.

Hakeem Jefferson is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University where he also is a faculty affiliate with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and the Stanford Center for American Democracy. Hakeem Jefferson was a 2021-2022 CASBS fellow.

His research focuses primarily on the role identity plays in structuring political attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. He is especially interested in understanding how stigma shapes the politics of Black Americans, particularly as it relates to group members’ support for racialized punitive social policies. In other research projects, he examines the psychological and social roots of the racial divide in Americans’ reactions to officer-involved shootings and work to evaluate the meaningfulness of key political concepts, like ideological identification, among Black Americans. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Michigan and his dissertation, “Policing Norms: Punishment and the Politics of Respectability Among Black Americans,” was a co-winner of the 2020 Best Dissertation Award from the Political Psychology Section of the American Political Science Association.

Books & Ideas: What does empirical research tell us about the state of the U.S. democracy today? Are there solid reasons to worry about its future?

Hakeem Jefferson: Political scientists have long thought about the state of democracy in places around the world. Comparative politics scholars in particular have attended to the state of democracy around the world. It is perhaps, unfortunately, new that those same scholars have felt it necessary to think about the state of American democracy. It has long been taken for granted that the US is a democracy, a strong democracy.

Therefore, scholars haven’t felt compelled to investigate the health of American democracy. Arguably, as one scholar Rob Mickey has noted in his research on American democracy, it is hard to convincingly make the case that the US, despite the optimism that scholars have had for a long time, that the US was anything like a democracy until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that gave the franchise to millions of African-Americans.

But it’s hard to say that before that period, before the passage of this landmark piece of legislation, that the US was a democracy, because it did not afford the right to vote to its citizens. And Mickey in his work talks about these sorts of authoritarian enclaves, particularly in the American South, where black Americans were violently prevented from taking advantage of the franchise: whites only primaries and the like throughout the American South.

So let’s, let’s take Mickey at his word that American democracy really came into existence - provocatively - in 1965. So, what do we make of American democracy in the present day? Folks at Bright Line Watch, this group of scholars who attend to the health of American democracy by way of interviewing and surveying experts and laypeople, have noted that experts, political scientists like me, increasingly worry about the health of American democracy.

And so when you ask experts, ’how’s American democracy doing today?’, there’s quite a bit of pessimism Freedom House, an organization that has attended to the state of democracy and advocates for democracy around the world, each year puts out a report, country level reports, and, in the past cycle, have noted that the state of American democracy has declined, by about 3%, according to their measure.

And what are they taking note of when making this assessment of American democracy? Well, they’re noting that for the first time in American history, we did not have a peaceful transfer of power from one executive to the next. And, so, this is a calling to mind, of course, the insurrection on January 6, after the election of Joe Biden, who defeated Donald Trump.

And, so, we don’t have or didn’t have this peaceful transfer of power, which is an important part of democratic governance. They’ve noted, too, that political elites have called into question not just Donald Trump, but Republican elites more broadly, have called into question the outcome of free and fair elections, making the case that Joe Biden, the current president, was unlawfully brought to power. So, the questioning of legitimate elections.

They’ve noted, too, that Republican elites across the country have attempted to enact pieces of legislation at the state and local level that make it harder for classes of people to vote, namely African-Americans, young people, the elderly, working class people. The enactment of these pieces of legislation that prevent or attempt to prevent people from engaging the franchise is certainly an attack on the core tenets of American democracy.

They have noted too the counter majoritarian nature of American political institutions. What do we mean by that? Well, the nature of the US Senate allows each state to have two senators, despite the fact that some states like California where I’m located is much larger than some smaller states, say, in the Midwest that have the same number of senators who can then prevent pieces of legislation that a majority of Americans support, for example, gun control legislation, can prevent that from moving forward because they have a disproportionate voice in the US Senate.

And the US Senate is not the only counter majoritarian institution that bears on the state of American democracy. The US Supreme Court plays this vital role, and deciding the constitutionality of legislation has played an active role in taking the teeth out of, say, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And this is an unelected branch of government, the judicial branch of the US Supreme Court, that wields this unsized amount of power in American politics. They’ve noted, too, increasing polarization that we see in all political branches, namely the legislative branch, increasing income and economic inequality, racial violence against people of color, notably violence against black men and women at the hands of police agents of the state.

All of these aspects of American society bear on the health of American democracy. And therefore, we’re at this period where I think those of us who believe in the goodness of democracy, despite its weaknesses or despite those aspects of democracy, that slow things down perhaps more than some of us would prefer, have good reason to worry about its future, particularly in a federal system of government where power is shared between a central government and state and local actors.

And, so, political scientist Jacob Graham Bock, a scholar at the University of Washington, has a forthcoming book that really pushes against this sort of old idea in American politics that states are laboratories of democracy, that they are sites of democratic health. And what Jake argues in this work is that instead the states are these sites of Democratic backsliding.

And that’s, I think, the period that we’re in in the US. We’re at this inflection point where those of us who pay attention to this really do believe that we’re at this moment of democratic backsliding. And I think it’s an urgent crisis for those of us concerned about it.

Books & Ideas: How would you situate the specific moment of history we are in within the broader history of the U.S. Civil Rights movement?

Hakeem Jefferson: It’s tempting for us to look at this moment in American history and think of it as singular or as unprecedented – a word that many of us have used frequently over the past many years now. There’s something really special or peculiar or unique about this moment in American history. And, to be sure, there is much about this moment that looks strange or weird or confusing, even. But to note that it’s unprecedented or to look at what has happened in the US and to say that this is unexpected or unheard of is to really take an a-historic view of American history.

I wrote a piece with another scholar, Victor Ray, for 538, a data journalist outfit here in the US, and its title, if I recall, was “White Backlash is a racial reckoning too”. And what we meant by that is that in this period when we’re observing what many of us would call a kind of democratic backsliding, it can’t be disconnected from or thought of as being separate from many other occasions that we’ve witnessed across the long thread of American history.

I’ll give one such example. Post emancipation, post the Civil War, Black Americans had a number of rights granted to them, and the moment of glory post emancipation, we saw the franchise being granted to freed black men. We saw black people now being able to elect people who looked like them to state and federal legislative branches of government. There was a sort of moment of great optimism for the future of race post this violent civil war that emancipated black people across the American South.

And what did we see in this moment? Post Reconstruction, as it’s called. We saw the uprising of violent white supremacists, the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. We saw threats of racial violence across localities where black people were attempting to engage and take advantage of the franchise. We saw state actors, including police, being used to maintain notions of white supremacy.

This all sounds rather familiar to one observing this current moment of American politics. We have seen these sorts of movements forward in terms of American racial projects, that black Americans, along with a coalition of allied Americans, were able to, in 2008, elect the first African-American president in American history. We’ve seen the now election of the first woman of color to the vice presidency.

We’ve seen these other advances where African-Americans and other people of color now wield more power than they have in previous moments. But, at the same time, we have seen, even as we’re conducting this interview and having this conversation today, we’ve seen in recent days here in the US, another instance of white supremacist racial violence visited upon a community of black people in New York.

We saw, in my home state of South Carolina, several years ago, another act of white supremacist violence. And we can’t disconnect these claims of illegitimacy with the election of Joe Biden from this same attempt at preserving and maintaining a notion of white supremacy in the US; and the recent 2020 election when claims of illegitimate votes were being made, they weren’t made randomly, they were made about locales in the United States, where black people, Hispanics and other people of color are a majority of those who vote in these locales.

For example, in Michigan, where I did my Ph.D. work, following the election in 2020, Republican commissioners on the state elections board were deciding what to do about votes in these different counties across the state of Michigan. Well, at one point, these Republican commissioners said that they would be fine confirming the legitimacy of votes in one county except in one location in Detroit, Michigan.

What’s special about Detroit, Michigan? Well, it’s home to a large number of African-American voters. And so, even as we think about these notions of Democratic backsliding that come top of mind, questioning the legitimacy of elections, attempting to restrict the franchise we can’t disconnect Democratic backsliding from this attempt to maintain white supremacy in the US. And this is a project, a racial and political project that has through lines across American history.

And so, this moment fits neatly with other moments in American history where there have been advances for civil rights that have been met with these moments of backlash from political elites and their constituencies. And that, for me, is how I’m thinking about this moment of American history too.

Books & Ideas: Isn’t there a contradiction between, on the one side, the objective diversity of the constituents of American Democracy and, on the other side, the dominant claim that identity politics harm democracy?

Hakeem Jefferson: There’s a lot of conversation among scholars and pundits about identity politics as it relates to the state of American democracy. Some would make the claim, including my colleague here at Stanford University, Frank Fukuyama, that identity politics causes us trouble, that it divides more than it unifies, that it separates people who otherwise should be in coalition, one with another. That it presents an urgent problem for American democracy. Taking this view, the diversity of the American public, when coupled with an insistence on identity politics, frustrates the goals of democracy to create a system of government that works for some plurality of folks. My view is that this is an overly pessimistic and wrongheaded view of what identity politics means.

So, in this view, the claim for rights by those who have taken part in, say, Black Lives Matter, or in a kind of queer politics or a feminist politics… These folks are asking for special rights. These folks are not seeing themselves on equal footing with those who belong to some majority or dominant group: Black Lives Matter activists are asking that a government treats black people in a way that’s not just distinct, but better than they treat, say, white Americans.

Perhaps my colleague Frank Fukuyama would disagree with my understanding of his argument and the argument of others like him. But that is my understanding of what people are worrying about when they worry about identity politics. Here’s what I would say in reply: it is impossible to exist in a society where there is so much difference and not acknowledge that these differences exist – these are not merely aesthetic differences between individuals.

These are differences that matter - race class, gender, sexual orientation, religious identity, these aspects of who we are are consequential. They determine life outcomes. They determine the trajectory of individuals’ lives in the US. To acknowledge that reality, which I think some would call a kind of identity politics is necessary, I think, to meet out the kind of justice that we expect and a healthy democracy.

Let me make this a bit more concrete, perhaps. Imagine if we ignored the reality that a black man in the US has a greater likelihood of dying at the hands of police use of force than his white male counterpart. Imagine if activists didn’t raise this reality and objected to it and brought it into public conversation and into public view.

Imagine if women activists didn’t raise objections to the fact that women in the US still make less for doing the same job than their male counterparts. And this is exacerbated when we take into account race. So black women fear worse than white women. Noting this might be regarded as a kind of identity politics. But it is simply the reality of life in the US and in diverse societies around the world.

And so, for me, as I think about the project of improving and strengthening American democracy, noting those places of weakness that persist in the US and, as the data would show, in places around the world, is a necessary aspect of making American democracy better. And so, I don’t quite see the tension between what others or what I would call a kind of identity politics and the project of strengthening American democracy. As I told my students, accounting for the realities and the importance and the consequential nature of identity is a necessary feature of strengthening American democracy. It requires that we note the difference, that we know that this stuff really does matter.

Books & Ideas: Can there be democracy without majoritarianism? Is there any reasonable hope to design democratic institutions that could enable people to embrace the identity of their choice while simultaneously accommodating a larger sense of national belonging?

Hakeem Jefferson: I think one of the simplest renderings of what democracy is, is that it’s this place where a majority rules. That decisions that take hold are decisions that some majority of us, or at least some large plurality, would agree to. I think that’s an oversimplified rendering of what a good and healthy democracy would look like. Imagine this for example, a majority of the American population is still white.

We know from tons of research that many scholars in political science and related fields have done, that these identities structure attitudes, that the way that I, as an individual, as an individual voter, might come to think about the granting of rights to another, reflects my identity and the considerations that attach to that identity. We know, for example, that many white Americans support restrictive voting laws because of their racial attitudes toward African-Americans, individuals they perceive are the targets of these laws.
We know, for example, that white Americans attitudes toward punishment, including the death penalty, are bound up with their racial attitudes. We know, for example, that various referenda, including questions that relate to the rights of gay, lesbian and trans Americans, reflect the attitudes that Americans have toward members of this particular group. We know that gender attitudes affect the way that Americans react to pieces of legislation that bear on the lives of women.

So, what do we do with these facts? In a democracy where a bare minimum understanding would say that majority rules at the very least a demand for that as a core tenet of democracy, is frustrated by the reality that some really negative attitudes, some stuff - technical term, some stuff that we might want to push to the side, really does matter in structuring attitudes toward outcomes that are so consequential for those who live on the margins of American society.

So, what does this all matter for this question of majoritarianism and democracy? Perhaps at the very least, it forces us to reckon with the reality that there are tradeoffs. That majority rule sometimes really burdens the lives of those who don’t occupy space in that majority, that we might want to structure political institutions that are a bit removed from the demands of some majority.

That, for example, is why the US Senate, unlike the lower House, the House of Representatives, vies for reelection at longer intervals. A US senator only has to go up for election every six years, whereas a member of the House of Representatives, arguably closer to the people, District representatives, unlike these at large state representatives, has to go up for reelection every two years.

What’s one of the ideas here? Well, one of the ideas is that US senators can make decisions that might not be so comfortable for some majority of their constituents, that they can make harder choices that might advantage those who live on the margins. So, we’ve tried to structure institutions that way. The US Supreme Court, for example. Lifetime membership on the court.

These are folks who never have to face election; they don’t have to worry. The argument goes about what public opinion looks like. But that’s proven to be, as one scholar calls it, a kind of hollow hope. We have seen over time the judicial branch look very much like other political branches of government. So there are potential policy prescriptions.

Some are advocating for an expansion of the court, for example, to include additional members who might have, as a central node of their judgment, a protection of democracy. There is nothing in the US Constitution, for example, that requires that there be nine justices. And the Biden administration has engaged in a kind of task force work to consider these changes to the judicial branch.

There are others who are making the argument that the US Senate should better reflect the American public by giving an apportionment based on state population, not just two per state. And so, there are advocates who are thinking up new ways, even multi-member districts, new ways that these institutions might better reflect a pluralistic society that is more diverse, of course, than when the framers created these institutions in the first place. And when I have some optimism about American democracy, it’s that maybe some of these ideas will catch on.

But it appears that we’re a long way away, unfortunately, from getting rid of something like the Electoral College in the US or changing the makeup of the US Senate or expanding the courts. But those are ideas that I think attempt to remedy this tension between a kind of democracy where majoritarianism matters, but also reflecting the fact that people on the margins are often screwed over by these majorities.

And so those are some ideas that are on the table. And time will tell whether they catch any waves in American society.

by Jules Naudet, 14 October

To quote this article :

Jules Naudet, « American Democracy and the Challenge of Identity Pluralism . An interview with Hakeem Jefferson », Books and Ideas , 14 October 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://booksandideas.net/American-Democracy-and-the-Challenge-of-Identity-Pluralism.html

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