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Crisis of Democracy

Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

Global leaders have described the recent unprecedented state of affairs within the most influential democratic society as an uncivil war, a cold civil war and un-American, and former American President Trump as a political pyromaniac. In the aftermath of the January 6th Insurrection, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas went further and called for the EU and the US to cooperate in constructing a Marshall Plan for democracy. Maas highlighted the close interconnections within the democratic framework between the EU and the US, such that a breakdown of democracy in the US may signal the same for the EU. Thus, a fragile democracy across the pond has significant implications for the European democratic project and the world at large.

Maas’ call echoes an important milestone in human history, as the Marshall Plan was instituted amidst the devastation of World War II, which brought unimaginable death and suffering to humanity. The current era resembles the post-war era, as Covid-19 deaths in the US have surpassed American battle deaths from all its wars of the past century. Today, the world, and particularly the West, faces a tripartite crisis of health, social discord and democratic governance. These coalesce into other crises, including devastation of the US and global economies and other social vulnerabilities.

The ideal of America as a mature, 200-plus year-old democracy belies the historical truth. From the founding of the American republic to the era when the Marshall Plan was established, America failed to practice inclusive democracy and only a tiny fraction of the country’s populace participated in the democratic experiment. American democracy has been defined by mass exclusions based on race, class, gender and voter suppression. Increasingly, an elite few enjoy the economic dividends from a democratic system as they also attempt to tilt the political pendulum for their benefit.

It would take nearly two decades after the Marshall Plan for the US to begin to develop into a multiracial democracy. The 1965 Voting Rights Act provided an important opportunity for attainment of the promise envisioned in the document penned by the American Founders; and yet, voter suppression of minorities and of the poor remains pervasive in America in the 21st century.

After the 2020 presidential elections, Trump’s claims of election fraud in Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and other communities predominantly populated by Blacks, repeated relics of the past. These claims call into question Black citizenship and their right to participate in the democratic process. Trump’s accusation of election fraud and the ensuing January 6th Insurrection revive the idea that Blacks are not eligible to vote and that their vote is an affront to American democracy.

A reimagined Marshall Plan for the West is overdue. Redress of racism, sexism, elitism and other forms of structural inequalities must be at its core.

Disenfranchisement of the Black vote has historically underpinned violence against Blacks. Historians refer to mob violence and killings perpetrated by white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 as America’s first coup d’état. More than a century later, the January 6th insurrectionists attempted America’s second coup d’état.

Racism and xenophobia converge with economic inequities to pose serious threats to liberal western economic systems and present critical stress tests for democracy. Occupy Wall Street and the Yellow Vests exemplify protest movements against economic inequalities. Similarly, Brexit emerged in part from outrage among segments of the British population that their taxes were sent to Brussels, while they endured economic hardships.

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A White ethnocentric orientation of western democracy further drives recent developments in Europe. Brexit was also partly based on the fear of migration of non-white Christian Europeans to the UK and the EU and the effects of this migration on white European societies. Germany, Austria, Hungary and other EU countries continue to experience the entrenchment of White nationalists and their usurpation of democratic processes.

Maas’ proposal of a Marshall Plan to reinvigorate democracy supposes that democracy has flourished in the US and the EU, and that its erosion is a recent Trump era phenomenon.

It is unequivocal that Trump and his team exacerbated the crisis of democracy. However, the fragility of democracy and democratic institutions and the failure of proportional distribution of the democratic dividend is symptomatic of larger racial and ethno-social inequities, further laid bare by Covid-19. A reimagined Marshall Plan for the West is overdue. Redress of racism, sexism, elitism and other forms of structural inequalities must be at its core.

At the end of Trump’s cataclysmic presidency and ruinations, we cannot settle for a return to ‘normalcy’. For many Americans, and particularly for Black Americans, the return to the status quo is no longer tenable. Democratic resiliency within a new Marshall Plan requires bouncing forward and away from the issues that plague our societies.

The institutions of the state: the justice system, taxation, education, and other social and economic institutions fall short of the threshold required for an inclusive democracy. The rule of law, which is the pillar of democratic systems, has been shaken in part by infiltration of white supremacists into the judicial and law enforcement systems. The mechanisms through which the government determines who is free and who is incarcerated, and ultimately, who is excluded from participation in economic and democratic activities cannot be allowed to decay.

With globalization and the rapid spread of information, people around the world are sophisticated and well informed. They do not believe the rhetoric of a positive American exceptionalism (or superiority of Western value systems) when to the contrary, they witness extraordinary acts of violence and undemocratic processes in the most influential western nation-state. Further, with a major economic shifting toward the east and its potentially ensuing geo-political dominance, to remain competitive and retain a semblance of influence in shaping the global agenda in the 21st century, western democracies must address the blights of racism and other structural inequalities.

How we move forward as Americans is important for the West and for the world at large. President Abraham Lincoln declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand. A significant segment of the population still questions the election results and Trump’s pending impeachment trial in the Senate will further intensify American polarization and erode public trust in governance. Foreign adversaries are poised to exploit these fissures.

Vice President Kamala Harris symbolizes enfranchisement for minorities and women. However, symbolism cannot assuage the suffering and pain at the bottom of the social ladder. We have reached the point where symbolic representation from the new administration will not suffice. Deep structural reform is needed as so many Americans continue to die in the trenches from Covid-19, police brutality, political and economic disenfranchisement and other injustices.


The Biden administration can take concrete actions through a renewed Marshall Plan to address these core structural issues.

Danielle Taana Smith