Searching for the Soul of America

What do down-ballot races in the 50 states tell us about what America stands for today?
S. Suresh, US election results, down-ballot races 2020, California Proposition 22, US legalizing marijuana, how many voted for Trump, soul of the nation news, Mississippi flag, Confederate symbols removed, US election 2020 down-ballot races

Pro-Trump Freedom Rally, Beverly Hills, California, 10/31/2020 © Michael Gordon

The soul of America is a highly sought-after commodity these days. In their victory speeches, both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris mentioned that they fought for the soul of America in the tightly-contested elections. Some 75 million people agreed, giving the Biden-Harris ticket the reigns for the next four years to repair and restore the soul of the nation.


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The losing incumbent, Donald Trump, has been a singularly divisive figure in American politics over the past several years. He is a racist and a white supremacist, a xenophobe and an Islamophobe, a misogynist and a narcissist, a liar and a petulant loser. Trump repeatedly denied scientific evidence when dealing with environmental issues and the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 death toll in the US is nearing 250,000 from over 10 million cases, primarily due to the mishandling of the pandemic by the Trump administration. And yet, 8 million more people than the 62 million who voted him into office in 2016 find Trump’s actions and behavior as acceptable. A staggering 70 million Americans still feel that there is nothing wrong with the soul of the nation and chose to cast their vote for Trump.

If we are forced to draw conclusions about that intangible entity referred to as the soul of America just from the votes people cast in the presidential contest, we can only surmise that it is split almost evenly between what Joe Biden and Donald Trump stand for. Refusing to accept that verdict, I investigated down-ballot races across the country with the hope of unearthing other clues that could shed a light in my quest to understand where and what America stands for today.

Should Non-Citizens Be Able to Vote?

Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have in their constitution language to the effect that the right to vote is available only to citizens of the country. Notwithstanding that, Alabama, Florida and Colorado passed constitutional amendments to make the citizenship requirement for voting more explicit. What is interesting is not that these measures passed with an overwhelming majority, but the fact that 23% of voters in Alabama, 20% in Florida and 33% in Colorado cast their ballots against the measure.

The 3.5 million Americans who subscribe to the idea that non-citizens should be able to vote belong to an interesting segment of the nation’s population. Perhaps they echo my thought process that it is appropriate for non-citizens to get to vote on specific issues. As non-citizens, it makes sense that they do not get to participate in the representational democratic aspects such as electing the president, governor or members of Congress. However, in keeping with the philosophy of taxation with representation, it also makes sense for them to vote in specific propositions, measures and initiatives local to their place of residence.

Criminal Justice Reforms

Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana, increasing the list of states that have decriminalized the schedule 1 drug to 31, including Washington, DC. Only in seven states — Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming — is the possession of marijuana fully illegal, even for medicinal purposes, although in North Carolina, it is not considered a criminal offense.

Oregon became a trailblazer, the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs. Today, America’s prisons have a population of 2.3 million, where one in five behind bars is there on account of a drug offense. With the decriminalization of marijuana, America’s war on drugs, initiated by Richard Nixon and perfected by Ronald Reagan, may finally be coming to an end.

A harsh reality of committing a felony offense is the loss of the right to vote. In the infamous presidential election of 2000, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in the state of Florida by a razor-thin margin of 537 votes. Florida, along with Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, has some of the harshest possible voting laws for people who have committed a felony offense. According to the Sentencing Project, 5.2 million people were ineligible to vote in the 2020 elections. Nearly 22%, or 1.13 million of them, are in the state of Florida. History may have been very different, and Bush may never have won the 2000 election had Florida’s laws allowed former felons who have paid their dues to the justice system and turned their lives around to vote.

This November, California made a shift to take a more liberal view on the voting rights of those with felony convictions. Californians restored the right to vote for people on parole, removing an important obstacle in allowing former felons to become full-fledged members of society. They also rejected a proposal that sought stricter parole rules and harsher sentencing.

Eliminating Symbols of Slavery

Earlier in June, Mississippi retired the state flag that had incorporated a version of the Confederate battle banner in it. The people of Mississippi voted to approve a new flag with the symbol of magnolia and the words “In God We Trust,” removing one of the last vestiges of Confederacy in a state flag.

Rhode Island voters passed a measure to strip the racially insensitive phrase “Providence Plantations” from its official name, after having failed to do so in 2010. By an overwhelming majority of 80% and an impressive majority of 68%, respectively, voters in Utah and Nebraska passed an initiative that removes references to slavery from their constitutions and suspends the permission of involuntary servitude as criminal punishment.

 And the Verdict Is

Toning down the populist and ill-conceived war-on-drugs rhetoric and easing the reintegration of former felons into society by restoring their voting rights are small steps toward meaningful criminal justice reform. Eliminating signifiers that celebrate the Confederacy and slavery from state names and flags is more than symbolic. They open up a path to healing, rejecting the hatred that lurks in the veneration of the icons of white supremacy.

The disappointments came from my home state of California. Here, Proposition 22 posed the question of whether app-based gig-economy workers such Uber and Lyft drivers should be treated as contractors or as employees with proper benefits. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates pumped nearly $200 million dollars to avoid the responsibility of giving gig-workers employee status. Their marketing blitzkrieg recruited Mothers Against Drunk Driving to portray a dismal scenario of increased drunk-driving deaths should this proposition fail. In the end, capitalism won where people opted to have their cheap Uber and Lyft rides, even if it meant denying their drivers their fair share of benefits.

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More poignantly, California missed its chance to reinstate affirmative action, which it ended in 1996 without giving adequate time for that initiative to have a meaningful impact. Sadly, more than 56% of voters failed to appreciate that compensating for centuries of advantages enjoyed by whites and other privileged classes would not only require counterinitiatives like affirmative action, but that they need to be given time so that African Americans and other disadvantaged minorities have a true shot at social equity.

Counterbalancing my disappointments stemming from the 70 million who are still willing to embrace Donald Trump and Californians rejecting affirmative action, I found many down-ballot measures, from Mississippi to Utah, from Arizona to New Jersey, pointing to a subtle shift in the right direction. That gives me a glimmer of hope that the soul of America may not be so dark as to be beyond redemption. And as they say, hope springs eternal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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