By many standards, the United States in 2019 is a prosperous country. Yet a new report by the United Nations reveals that many Americans feel deeply unhappy. Moreover, they are increasingly pessimistic on a wide range of problems facing the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Americans feel fundamentally insecure about their standard of living, personal debt, personal safety, opportunities for advancement, and increasingly, climate change.
I believe American insecurity is the result of American disenfranchisement. Despite our narrative of American democracy, mass disenfranchisement has been a consistent condition in our history. Women only won the right to vote in 1920. The civil rights movement broke down widespread restrictions on voting for people of color in the 1960s, but the rise of mass incarceration with the war on drugs has sharply restricted voting once again; today, around six million Americans cannot vote because of state rules on felony convictions, including one in every thirteen African Americans.
Disenfranchisement is not merely the restriction of the voting rights of particular individuals. I consider it any factor that reduces the value of one vote against another vote. The widespread gerrymandering of electoral districts have reduced actual contests to a small number of battlegrounds. Voter ID laws are designed to disproportionately exclude the working class and people of color. Slow adoption of early voting laws and the widespread malfunction of voting machines are functional forms of disenfranchisement for working Americans.
The foundation of these problems is the influence of money in politics, which has been unregulated since the 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. FEC. A tsunami of campaign contributions allows powerful candidates to unfairly sway elections, and allows them to pass policies unrepresentative of the will of their constituents. These policies tend to reinforce the accumulation of private wealth, creating a deepening cycle of corruption and inequality. The politics of disenfranchisement has thus become more naked—for example, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell openly opposes reforms in HR 1 to increase voter turnout.
Security ideology has played an important role in reinforcing these trends. We live in a society of constitutionally-guaranteed rights and laws. But by designating problems as existential security threats, governments earn the discretion to create exceptions to the rule of law. This column has already reviewed instances in which this has infringed Americans’ individual rights. These range from the blatant, as in the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII and suspension of habeas corpus for Guantanamo Bay detainees in this century, to the more subtle, such as mass programs of metadata surveillance.
Over the long run, the spread of security, surveillance, and secrecy have had the more general effect of excluding democratic politics from the development of state policies. I believe mass surveillance run by a million-person bureaucracy with secret-level clearances, interminable delays in complying with Freedom of Information Act requests, and unending war-like military “interventions” and occupations overseas are all forms of disenfranchisement. The American people, and their representatives, are misinformed about these policies; they did not agree to them, nor do they have the power at present to stop them. It seems to me that security—as a permanent mode of government—is making Americans less secure.
Security is Political
Fortunately, the academic field of Security Studies has evolved in the past two decades with a more self-critical and humanistic focus. At the time of its development within the field of International Relations during the Cold War, the world seemed to have arrived at a final political formation, e.g., distinct nation states with regulated boundaries. The United States, with disproportionate political, economic, and cultural power, faced only one clear existential threat: nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
After the end of the Cold War, however, with the spread of globalization and rise of asymmetrical terrorist threats, this focus no longer seemed to address the real roots of insecurity. Starting in the 1990s, a new generation of “critical” security scholars argued that focusing on sovereign states as the only legitimate subjects of study erased human agency and the impact of security policies on real people. This led to a proliferation of new sub-fields, including food security, feminist security, environmental security, private corporate security and internet security. Critical security scholars have redefined the goal of security from protecting state sovereignty to achieving “emancipation”—that is, the progressive elimination of oppression from human life.
Unsurprisingly, critical scholars have denounced the security apparatus in contemporary states as betraying their stated aims—almost to the point of nullifying representative democracy, degrading living standards for the poor, and leading to conditions akin to fascism. International studies scholar João Nunez argues that recognizing and working through the fundamental politicization of security will be a more productive approach. According to Nunez, we should engage intellectually with security as a detailed network of power relations.
Tactical approaches to criticizing and confronting the power of security include fighting for a stronger union for federal employees, such as TSA agents; creating advocacy groups to highlight and protest the privatization of public space and the march of private and public surveillance; and generally, spreading awareness that poor government regulation or even subsidies currently grant corporations profits while promoting insecurity in the food supply, personal data, etc.
After American Exceptionalism
One of the most significant developments in security studies following the introduction of interdisciplinary approaches has been a critique of Eurocentrism in the field. Citing the latest approaches in postcolonial studies, scholars Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey examine the shortcomings of this perspective in light of twenty-first-century conditions of geopolitics and the globalized political economy.
When this article was published in 2006, conventional security studies was still struggling to understand transnational terrorism. The indigenous politics that had developed in Asia and Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to confront European colonization were conducted on a dramatically unequal basis. Yet an analysis based on diplomacy and war between sovereign nation states has little room for the “politics of the weak.” In the conventional framework, the turn to terrorist tactics by radicalized splinter groups at mid-century could only be interpreted as wholly illegitimate. As natural as this interpretation may be in a moralizing sense, it does not help scholars understand the mechanisms of ideological development, radicalization, or recruitment into terrorist groups. Nor can the corresponding security policy—violent suppression—actually strike at the causes of terrorist mobilization. Disenfranchisement is one of the strongest grievances.
More relevant in 2019, however, is the authors’ suggestion that the rigid categorization of the world’s strong and weak states favored by Eurocentric political views blinds analysts to the political and social transformations of our globalized present. Widening inequality and political corruption in North American and European states are corroding the legitimacy of their claims of popular sovereignty. Put more bluntly, the authoritarian politics and populist mobilization common in many postcolonial states is becoming more recognizable in “the West.” The politics of the weak will no longer be an attribute only of “the other,” the Global South, but an endemic feature across the world.
It is my belief that the most productive effort will be to enfranchise the weak, rather than to securitize and exclude them.
Towards a More Critical Society
In many of my columns for “Security State of Mind,” I have turned to legal studies. Inasmuch as American security and economic policies are bounded (if not totally controlled) by the law, following the actual development of legal opinion captures practical trends in governance. Both security and legal studies are coming to terms with the rapidly emerging new critiques of capitalism in the 2010s. Any hope for “emancipation” in the critical sense will need to deeply involve the reform of our unregulated global economy.
One expects lawyers, the traditional gatekeepers of constitutional rights and liberties, to defend both civic privileges and private property rights. The rapid evolution of public opinion, however, is fully evident in 2018’s “Liberal Constitutionalism and Economic Inequality,” by law professors Rosalind Dixon and Julie Suk. In the law review of the University of Chicago, whose economics department was a birthplace of neoliberalism, it is astonishing to read: “When individuals’ lives are determined by parental wealth with no significant role for individual autonomy, that society is an aristocracy; it is not the society that liberal-democratic constitutions purport to create.”
Their understandable fear, common in news analysis these days, is that wealth inequality is becoming a security threat to liberal constitutionalism by encouraging illiberal demagoguery. They consider how electoral reform could help society reinvest in the political process, and the ways in which social welfare and redistributive laws and policies could reduce inequality.
These legal scholars fear that new redistributive policies risk creating ever-growing subcategories of citizens to receive special treatment that creates incentives for corruption. They also worry that existing institutions, such as the courts, may not have the capacity to deal with legislation that seeks to impose public control on novel areas formerly determined by private or contract rights.
As a historian, my rejoinder is that political inclusion—enfranchisement—should be the basis for social reconciliation over time. We cannot predict the future; indeed, fate laughs at our ability to try. Democracy is not meant to defend an abstract or permanent set of laws or institutions—it is and can only be a living effort, the result of citizens assembling and negotiating their differences as time passes.