Is This The End of American Democracy?
Is America a democratic country when there is no freedom of speech?
The US midterm elections results are in and the ‘red wave’ that people anticipated turned out to be just a small splash. While the result is still being analyzed, it shows a deeper problem with US democracy: namely, the voter turnout.
The low voter turnout rate
The turnout rate for the 2020 Presidential election soared to 62.8% and the 2018 midterm election was also considered high at 47.5%. As a pew research article showed, the US trails behind other developed countries in voter turnout. Here is the voter turnout for presidential elections between the US and South Korea.
Given that voting is the primary mechanism of the democratic process, the lackadaisical attitude of the US voters should sound an alarm. Citizens in countries like Sweden, New Zealand, South Korea, and the Netherlands are more willing to make sure that their votes are counted.
Why is the low voter turnout a problem? Just as an example, the turnout rate of Hong Kong citizens hit a record low when only pro-Beijing candidates were allowed in the December 2021 legislative election. No show was a passive-aggressive reaction of the Hong Kong citizens when they felt that their voices were not heard.
There might be many factors that contribute to the low turnout rate but for the US, I argue that freedom of speech is one of the primary factors. This might sound crazy because the First Amendment is in the constitution. Hear me out to present my case.
Is the US more totalitarian than North Korea?
A North Korean defector Yeonmi Park had a harrowing journey to find freedom in South Korea. Her biography of how she managed to escape from the prison country was an international bestseller. Later, she studies at a prestigious Ivy League school, Columbia University. You would think that she would be all enjoying freedom in the US. Wrong. She was shocked to learn how restricted and brainwashed people are in American universities.
During an interview, she expressed her unbelief about people not appreciating freedom and instead touting communism as the salvation to all social ills of America. She even went on to say that there was no freedom of speech in the US and that “even North Korea was not this nuts.”
Why am I not surprised by her statement? I have first-hand experience when I was attending graduate school in a New York school. It was considered a conservative school but even there, the general atmosphere was anti-governmental and anti-everything that is established and organized. That was almost thirty years ago and I observe that American democracy declined even further.
PC for Political Correctness
I first came to the US as a foreign student in the early nineties in New York. I quickly learned that some words carry bad connotations and thus should be replaced with “politically correct” terms. For instance, I should use “African-American” instead of “blacks”, “Native Americans” for “American Indians”, “chairperson” for “chairman,” etc. My English was not that great at the time so memorizing these extra terms was an added burden for my English learning and cognitive load. But I was convinced that the PC is good for society in general.
Then things started to unravel even more. Added to the PC list were words like “partner” instead of “husband/wife.” To some, even a word like “spouse” is not neutral enough because it assumes the institution of marriage. The gay community appropriated the word “queer” which was formerly a pejorative word though it seems no longer used widely.
The PC is now extended to pronouns. The latest trend is to indicate one’s preferred pronoun: namely, he/him, she/her, and they/them. I even saw people using they/them when they refer to themselves even though “they” in this case is a single person.
The voter turnout rate shows a downward trend around the 1970s when political correctness started to take the center stage in US politics and the public arena. I do not think that is a pure coincidence.
Things that cannot be said in public
The PC is not limited to exchanging politically charged words with neutral ones, of course. The extent of the PC goes deeper to the point of severely limiting the entire discourse of any sensitive topics.
If you lived in the US for an extended period of time, you will soon discover that there are a few topics you should be really careful to mention in public. Here is the list that immediately comes to my mind:
- Race: Regardless of your race, people will assume that you have a particular agenda for your race or against other ethnic groups so it is best to avoid it altogether.
- Religion: Attacking Christianity seems to be acceptable in certain contexts, but do not try that with other religions like Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.
- Sexual orientation: Gay rights are such a strong political force in the US that you would be risking your public life by saying anything against the dominant view. You will be buried alive for stating your belief if it goes against the “accepted” public opinion. A case in point is the Miss USA Beauty pageant 2009 when a contender stirred up a huge controversy when answering a question about same-sex marriage. She even publicly received death threats.
- Gender: The issue of gender goes beyond the original bisexual boundary. Now, there is no clear boundary. Even for survey questions, you can find multiple choices for gender: man, woman, trans-man, trans-woman, pan-gender, non-binary, cisgender, bisexual, etc.
- Guns: Coming from a country with strict gun control, I was naive to argue for more strict control with my American colleagues at the beginning. I was met with such a strong antagonistic response that I learned to approach the topic more carefully: namely, by not raising this again with the “wrong” crowd.
Most people are not comfortable discussing these issues. Period. Public or private. All that was left to discuss are sports, the weather, the traffic, and the economy. As much as they are important, there are more deep-rooted issues that concern one’s beliefs, values, and world views, aren’t there When you cannot discuss such important issues in public, how can you say that there is freedom of speech?
Wokeness and cancel culture
Woke movement is an extension of Political Correctness and woke capitalism is the new economic application. A byproduct or a natural consequence of PC and “woke” is the cancel culture which is social ostracism that limits speech of freedom.
The intention of the PC and woke movement was to raise awareness of prejudices and discrimination. I must give credit where it is due. I can only remember only a couple of racial slurs directed at me personally in the past few decades I lived in the US.
The problem is that I do not know what people actually think in their heads. The words are all polite and nice but I could not tell whether they come from their hearts or they are the filtered results of the PC. In the worst case, I might be already “canceled” by other people without my knowledge.
Trump to the rescue?
When people cannot say what was on their minds, poll results become meaningless. I believe that was what happened to the surprise presidency of Donald Trump in 2016. Even though Trump’s speech was unrefined and crude and crazy at times, people cheered for him because he dared to speak against the PC, against the accepted correct views dictated by the media. Unfiltered, yes. But people found him to be trustworthy because he seemed to speak from his own mind.
The uptick trend of the voter turnout rate in presidential elections started in 2016 when Donal Trump was running for president against Hilary Clinton. It became more obvious in the last 2020 election as we have seen already:
In December 2021, the Summit for Democracy was held virtually for two days. The theme of the summit was “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.” Controversies arose regarding the list of invited and uninvited countries. Two uninvited countries were Russia and China which might be understandable. But, when you find countries like Iraq and Angola in the invited guests, you begin to wonder whether the invitation was sent purely based on US political interests. If that were the case, the Summit for Democracy was the biggest satire for American democracy.
I am not for or against any political party or candidate. To be transparent, I lean more toward Republicans though I do not agree with all of their agendas. You can hate me depending on your political stance. But I hope you don’t cancel me out. Let’s have a discussion. I am willing to be offended, even to be called names. But, for God’s sake, let us talk our hearts. Only then can we have freedom of speech and America will be great again.
‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.’ — Martin Luther King Jr.