Is America's Democracy Really Working for All?

A Conversation with Presidential Leadership Scholars Isabel González Whitaker, Chequan Lewis, and Tina Tran

American democracy remains strong and vibrant, but protecting this strength requires a renewed commitment to ensuring all Americans are receiving equal benefits and opportunities.

Tina Tran during the 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholars program. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

A recent survey by the George W. Bush Institute, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and Freedom House focused on perceptions of the health of America’s democracy. Strong preference existed among all respondents for living in a democracy, but a distinct difference emerged among some people about how well our democracy is working. The difference was particularly acute among people of color. 

The Catalyst asked three recent Presidential Leadership Scholars to share their views on those distinctions. Isabel González Whitaker, Chequan Lewis, and Tina Tran participated in a three-way email interview on how our democracy can benefit more Americans, including creating greater opportunities for all citizens.  

Let’s start with this question: How well do you think our democracy is working? In other words, what makes you most proud to be an American? At the same time, what worries you most?

González Whitaker: Our democracy has its challenges, but I'd say it's still very strong. My perspective, of course, is shaped by the fact that my family came to this country from Cuba during and after the revolution. I intimately know lives lived under nondemocratic circumstances.

"Our democracy has its challenges, but I'd say it's still very strong. My perspective, of course, is shaped by the fact that my family came to this country from Cuba during and after the revolution. I intimately know lives lived under nondemocratic circumstances."
—Isabel González Whitaker

Our past has given me a great sense of appreciation for the opportunities that exist in the U.S. I am most proud that voices can surface and co-exist for the purposes of opportunity, engagement, and civic action. I worry about those purposes being squeezed out through the limiting of community support and freedom of press.

Lewis: I hate to equivocate, but I think the answer to this question depends on your perch. As a political scientist, student of history, and general observer of world affairs, I'd have to say our democracy works well. As a black man, I'd say the answer is far more complicated because we have a lot of work to do in order to model our organizing principles.

Chequan Lewis during a Presidential Leadership Scholars module, February 2018. (Grant Miller / Presidential Leadership Scholars)

I still think America has the capacity to be the greatest force for good in the world. Our elections are essentially free. We have a generally participatory democracy. We create space for economic ingenuity. We get a lot of the "blocking and tackling" right. I am proud of these things, especially those opportunities I've been afforded that may be uniquely American.

We have a lot of work to do, however, to ensure the best version of the American existence is lived in every corner of our country regardless of race, zip code, class, gender, or identity. I am worried that the American dream is illusory for too many. I worry about the dangerous ways in which race often intersects with our criminal justice system. I worry about the suppression of voting rights. And I worry that poverty is all too common an existence in our country. I worry about the ways in which corridors of power are often locked to people who need government to clear out obstacles the most.

"We have a lot of work to do, however, to ensure the best version of the American existence is lived in every corner of our country regardless of race, zip code, class, gender, or identity. I am worried that the American dream is illusory for too many."
—Chequan Lewis

These things threaten the vibrancy of our democracy and challenge our ability to lead the world from the front. I also believe deeply in our ability to meet the demands of the moment together. 

González Whitaker: The answer does depend on your perch, but I don't think that's equivocating per se. Democracy here works mostly well, but still leaves folks behind — folks from our communities specifically and others for whom resources and paths aren't made available or able to be sussed out.

To that end, I was pleased to see the results of the study showed that most respondents believe in prioritizing the protection of rights of non-majorities.  I love that you also tap into the optimism of the foundational roots of this country — that we can be a great force for good in our communities as individuals and through government. The study speaks to this resolve when it talks about schools and doubling down on civic education with "89 percent favoring it as a way to bolster democracy."

Tran: Our democracy works best when people are engaged and believe what they think matters and are informed on the issues. The rise of social media has certainly been a factor, and the campaigns that highlight the importance of voting appear to be influencing more participation in our democratic system. I see more people than ever, especially young people and minorities being more engaged in policy discussions. 

Like Isabel, I came to the U.S. from a communist country. As a result, I understand well the importance of democracy and such liberties as a free press and free speech. As a refugee who came from Vietnam as a child, there was a time when my family and our relatives didn't know how to register to vote. We felt more like we were Vietnamese than American. 

Now that we've settled in, we understand our power and responsibility to make our voice heard through civic engagement. As more immigrants understand that this country is their country, they will make their voices heard at the ballot box. That will be a good thing for America.

I'm proud to be an American because of the freedom I have to determine my own destiny. I believe I am in charge of my lot in my life. It's not determined for me based on where I was born, where I grew up, or who my parents are. I'm most proud of our meritocracy.

"I'm proud to be an American because of the freedom I have to determine my own destiny. I believe I am in charge of my lot in my life. It's not determined for me based on where I was born, where I grew up, or who my parents are. I'm most proud of our meritocracy."
—Tina Tran
Tina Tran speaks at Module 4 of the Presidential Leadership Scholars in Dallas, May 12, 2018. (Grant Miller / Presidential Leadership Scholars)

That said, I am worried about an educational system that does not provide for equal access to opportunity (where money is the difference between getting a good education or a poor one) and a culture that doesn't value teachers and education in the way that some of our competing countries do.

Democracies work best when constituents are generally on a level playing field. I'm afraid the divide between the haves and have nots will increase and that's perhaps when people will start to feel that our democracy is not really working in their best interests.

Nonwhite respondents saw racial inequality and discrimination getting worse by a much greater margin, almost by two-to-one. What would you say to white respondents who largely saw things getting better?

González Whitaker: I can see why from their vantage point things appear to be getting better. Look at all the incredibly awesome and much-needed cultural representation  an important buzzword of the moment  that's happening right now, this year: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, a mainstream music scene, and MTV Video Music Awards dominated by Latinx sounds and voices. Look at my mom's namesake park  the Sara J. González Memorial Park  the first to be named after a Latinx in the State of Georgia.

The needle is moving in the right direction, at least in terms of representation, but there are still gross inequities facing these communities that can be overshadowed by the glossier public achievements. This one stat drove so much of my passion for upping the quality features at my mom's park: 19 percent of Latino children don't have access to recreational spaces close to their neighborhoods compared to 62 percent of Anglo-Americans.

Isabel González Whitaker at the opening of the park in honor of her mother. (Courtesy Isabel González Whitaker)

Lewis: Isabel, that park stat is a great example of experiential asymmetry. Most Anglo-American children can't imagine an experience where recreational space is not an option. The overwhelming majority of Latino children can't imagine having it as an option. The segregated nature of these experiences often forces us to engage a shared world in fundamentally different ways. And we are often literally unable to understand the other side of the coin without breaking out of our bubbles. It's a duty we all share. Just as much as we should all be pursuing prosperity and opportunity for folks outside of our respective bubbles as well. 

Tran: To white respondents that saw things getting better while their nonwhite partners saw things getting worse — I would encourage them to increase their engagement with nonwhite friends and to have meaningful conversations around topics that aren't always easy to talk about. I think it makes sense that when we are polled we think about OUR experience, not the experience that others are having.

That said, I would encourage white respondents to consider whether their nonwhite neighbors and friends have to pay a "tax" that they don't. Increasing hard conversations, empathy, and understanding among friends who respect and understand each other, as we've seen with Presidential Leadership Scholars, is the best way to have a more nuanced view of the world than your own. 

"Increasing hard conversations, empathy, and understanding among friends who respect and understand each other, as we've seen with Presidential Leadership Scholars, is the best way to have a more nuanced view of the world than your own."
—Tina Tran

I have noticed more people acknowledging their privilege, and I think that's a good start to understanding that there is a certain ingrained privilege that folks have that makes it hard for them to understand what others truly go through. It's easy to tell people to get over it, to work hard and be thankful for what you have. It's another thing to acknowledge the history and treatment that certain minority groups have to overcome in order to be in the same headspace of "just work hard.” 

Lewis: Great question. And I think that wide gap is an important issue indicative of many of our struggles today. We have too many experiential asymmetries. I think I'd ask the white respondents more questions than I gave responses.

The first thing I'd want to understand is their basis for this feeling. We have an enormous "racial experience gap" in America. My first message is to ask: "Why do you feel that way?" I expect we will find a lot of (legitimate) anecdotal evidence informing this perspective.

I'd next want to understand the depth and breadth of their relationships with nonwhite Americans. I'd ask this because I'd challenge them  no matter their answer  to refract their understanding of the "evidence" through the lens of another's experience. As I would any respondent, I'd challenge them to grapple with viewpoints diametrically opposed to their own. And then have them ask others "why" as well. There is capacity for great learning on the other side.

Chaquan Lewis asks a question to Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholars Graduation in Little Rock. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

Finally, I'd challenge the white respondents to evaluate their definitions of inequality and discrimination. It's important to understand these words and people's experiences with them as well. I think racial inequality and discrimination are worsening as well, even as someone they may think is ostensibly "insulated" from these realities. As I have often found, approaching conversations like these armed with my own truths (and those of folks with similar experience) and a commitment to listening as much as I am heard, we find potential for expanded understanding.  

What stands in the way of more people of color not only entering the middle class, but being able to stay there and move beyond? Is the continuing gap more attributable to discrimination or education and lack of job opportunity?

Tran: What stands in the way of people being able to move into the middle class and stay there?

One: Not having enough of a safety net and network that also identifies as middle class makes it hard to land there and stay there. Perhaps opportunities are too tenuous and the foundation of education and a strong network comprised of similarly successful minorities or friend group is not strong enough.

Two: Not having the inherent belief that this is their group, that this can be their existence, that they belong in the middle class. Sometimes we get used to our surroundings and people can let that lower their bar for what they can achieve and sustain, and the goals they set for themselves.

How do we model for people of color that there are careers and educational aspirations that are meant for them, when they don't see that represented in their lives, in popular culture and in media? That's why the current conversation around representation in media is really important. 

Three: I'm not sure there is a lack of job opportunities  perhaps there's a lack of adequate training and possibly vocational training. I think it's more about being treated in a way that makes one believe they are bound for greatness and can do whatever they put their mind to.  

The continuing gap can be attributable to discrimination, education, and a lack of job opportunity. On the second and third point, we are influenced by those we surround ourselves with. It’s important to have more role models and programs to help expand people's horizons and understanding of the opportunities that are available to them.

In terms of discrimination, how we not only treat folks differently but also penalize people of color for infractions differently than whites is something that is not adequately measurable and greatly impacts outcomes. It's hard not to think about how our unequal justice system plays an enormous part in the outcomes and lives of people of color. It's a matter of math. If you've been in jail how much harder would it be to make it to the middle class and stay there? 

Lewis: Tina's point about the criminal justice system cannot be overstated either. The statistical disparities by race and class in terms of encounters and outcomes with this institution tell an important tale as well. Very good point, Tina.

González Whitaker: The achievement gap is attributable at every turn and every decade to fungible encounters with institutional and individual unconscious bias or overt discrimination or inequitable educational opportunities and resources as well as lack of representation. That's why successes at any and every level around representation matter so much. Representation is a healthy counter narrative to the deficiencies in the systems.

"The achievement gap is attributable at every turn and every decade to fungible encounters with institutional and individual unconscious bias or overt discrimination or inequitable educational opportunities and resources as well as lack of representation."
—Isabel González Whitaker

It conveys to others that it can be done no matter what: that movies with all Asian casts can be made, that Latinos can win offices, and that African Americans can thrive in the C-suite. You may not reach those upper echelons, but in trying you move away from the bottom and that's when generational change can cycle in and start to have long term impact.

Lewis: I actually don't think that's a binary choice. In America, specifically, a history of overt or implicit bias, discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization is actually  in many ways  directly responsible for institutional barriers to minority advancement. 

It’s very important not to hold up anecdotes or individual stories as "silver bullet" contraventions of this truth. Under-investment of time, attention, and money in public education, for example, can be directly tied to poor educational outcomes for people who have no choice but to rely on such a system (i.e. disproportionately racial minorities in urban areas). Poor educational outcomes kill job opportunities.

Another important part of job opportunity is transportation and mobility. Joblessness, then, is not uncommon for minorities suffering in transportation deserts across America. Transportation deserts are often the result of historical and/or targeted under-investment.

In short, I do think racial discrimination is inextricably intertwined with the obstruction of economic mobility for minorities, even if circumstances have broken differently for some of us.

But we really can start to write a brighter and more inclusive chapter in this country if we get serious about curing those things that ail us.

We have to identify, name, and confront the problems first. Not simply to keep score of historical rights and wrongs, but to get serious about framing and fixing these things that prevent us from reaching our real potential as a thriving, inclusive democracy.

"We have to identify, name, and confront the problems first. Not simply to keep score of historical rights and wrongs, but to get serious about framing and fixing these things that prevent us from reaching our real potential as a thriving, inclusive democracy."
—Chequan Lewis

We can't be that when segments of our population consistently encounter barriers they can't remove alone. But we can begin to systemically reverse or remove them together.    

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