American “democracy” has never been a democracy at all. John Adams argued that the best form of government was “mixed,” by which he meant elements of a monarchy (Executive), aristocracy (Senate), and democracy (House). And if that wasn’t complicated enough, most of the founders agreed that the federal Constitution established a “republic,” which for Adams was an “empire of laws, not men.”
The most obvious and consistent anti-democratic defect in U.S. society is the endless means used to restrict suffrage. Women, of course, did not secure the right to vote until 1920, though they comprised over half of the adult population. Before the Civil War, states created a hodgepodge of unfair voting regulations. In 1821, New York eliminated property requirements for white men, but retained them for free black men. Eight states passed laws disenfranchising the urban poor, and the new state of California prohibited slavery but established the practice of peonage on Native Americans that denied them political rights.
In the aftermath of Reconstruction, southern states used poll taxes to deny poor black and white men the vote. It was so effective that only 20% of the southern population participated in the presidential elections of 1920 and 1924. Poll taxes were not deemed unconstitutional until 1966. Finally, the Electoral College denies voters the right to directly elect the president, which the Supreme Court reconfirmed during the contested 2000 election. The winner-take-all proviso for awarding state electoral votes disfranchises minority party voters. The real leader in democratic reform is Australia, which made voting compulsory. This innovation has produced vastly higher turnouts and greater legitimacy for the victors.
Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University and author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.
Most people living in extreme poverty don’t have the money to move somewhere else. Often enough people do leave their nations to go where there are better opportunities. However those leaving are typically those with some education and/or wealth. This ends up being another important resource leaving developing nations.
Though it’s refreshing to see some optimistic myths about global poverty, the fact remains that relying on future innovations is not a viable plan and it does nothing for those living in poverty today. Which leads to me to another myth…
There is poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness in developed nations. No one is suggesting that these problems should be ignored. However, the fact remains that less than 1% of most developed nation’s budget goes to foreign aid whereas large portions of their budget address domestic health and infrastructure. The type of poverty in the developing world is objectively different from the type of poverty experienced in developing countries.
How much do you think the United States spends in international aid every year? It’s probably less than you think . When asked how much of the national budget was spent on foreign aid the average American responded with 25%. The actual amount is less than 1%. Even the most generous nation in the world, Norway, gives less than 3% a year. When asked how much the United States should spend on foreign aid, the average response was 10%.
There are clearly poor people in developing nations. But there are also poor in developed countries. Worse, the belief that a developing nation is entirely populated by poor people erases the many success stories of the rising global middle class people. Only focusing on those in desperate povertymakes for ineffective policies and leads to false assumptions about how people live in other countries.
This one will probably seem obvious but there is a misconception that developing nations have no culture or history because they’ve always been poor and cut off from the rest of the world. Aside from the racist assumptions about poverty in tribal civilizations, this myth ignores the rich and powerful cities, kingdoms and empires that have existed in areas that are now impoverished. Look into the Malian Empire or the Mughal Empire if you don’t believe me.
This is one of the most damaging myths because it makes people believe that there isn’t much that can be done to help. But it’s simply not true. For example, about 400 billion dollars worth of resources leave the continent of Africa every year. There are a lot of reasons why developing nations can have a lot of poverty, but a lack of natural resources is rarely a big factor. This myth also leads people to conclude that.
It’s not as though people don’t know that Africa is a continent not a country. The problem is that people make sweeping generalizations about Africa. Whereas most people in the Global North have a clear idea about the differences between Germany and Italy, African nations often get painted with the same brush. In fact there are 54 different African nations all with different cultures, ethnicities, and economic statuses.
Yes, there are many developing nations in Africa. And yes, most of the myths on this list apply to how people think of Africa. There are developing countries in North America, South America, Asia and Europe. And Africa isn’t a monolith of poverty. This myth feeds into a lot of misconceptions about Africa.