What Protests For Racial Justice Tell Us About U.S. Democracy

American democracy is facing its most serious challenge in decades, says Larry Diamond on the World Class Podcast. But there are signs of hope.

People gather at the U.S. Capitol during a peaceful protest against police brutality on June 4, 2020, in Washington, DC. Photo: Getty Images

Outrage over institutional racism and police brutality have inspired protests in all 50 states over the past several weeks, which erupted following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

American democracy is now facing its most serious challenge in decades, Larry Diamond told host Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast.

But there are some positive and hopeful aspects to the situation in the United States, said Diamond, who is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

“The scope and the intensity of the protests and the outrage they have unleashed is not only a sign of great and intolerable deficiency in American democracy, but also a sign of the vitality of American democracy,” he said.

Diamond compared the protests to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, but with a few notable differences.

While the majority of protesters who congregated in the American south to fight for justice and equality 50 years ago were black Americans, the protesters involved in recent demonstrations come from a wider variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, he said.

Additionally, the recent protests have taken place all across the country, including in small towns and cities in every state.

“These are signs of a new vibrancy and resolve in American democracy that we can be hopeful about,” Diamond said. “We can’t waste the opportunity to bring about lasting and real change in the issues that have mobilized people to protest.”

Although the majority of protests have been peaceful, Diamond is worried about what may happen after the U.S. presidential election in November if the election is perceived by some to be illegitimate.

An increase in racially-motivated suppression of the right to vote, combined with a pandemic which is making it harder for people to vote, along with a president who has not expressed concern about either factor is a “very dangerous combination,” he said.

Diamond noted that if people believe there has been fraud, illegitimacy, or unfairness in the 2020 election, there is a significantly greater risk of a violent reaction on the streets than after the 2016 presidential election.

“This time, there’s going to be anger, I think,” Diamond said. “We just can’t let that danger of a fundamental shock to the legitimacy of our democracy happen when we have the means now to avert it.”

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FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.