John Archibald Woodside, a Philadelphia sign painter, 1814
The consensus among reporters, pundits, and intellectuals seems to be that liberal democracy is obsolete, that it cannot compete in whatever new world is emerging that combines the most sophisticated technology with the most primitive of tribal passions. Perhaps hierarchy is the natural order of human life because struggle is the natural order of all life (so right wing intellectuals argue). We submit to “who may” versus “who must” in order to survive, for protection against enemies and misfortune. The autocrat is always ready to ride in on a glamorous white horse and fix everything. We really want to be ruled by heroes who fight for us. We want Big Daddy or Big Mama to protect us, clean up our mess, and make us feel glorious again. The rule of strength delivers results in a way that the rule of law can’t.
Democracy is an ugly business. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote about the Athenian democracy to demonstrate what a failure it was. The founding fathers of the USA read those authors as a warning about democracy’s fatal excesses; the fickleness of public opinion, the opportunities for ambitious demagogues, the tyranny of majorities and their rule. Democracy is a stew of political parties, competing interests, factions, lawyers, committees, parliamentary rules, messy compromises, and solutions where no one is completely happy. The challenge of living in a liberal democracy is willingness to accept people who are not like you at all – who do not look like you or speak like you or believe like you do or whatever – as equals; to recognize that their claim upon this world is every bit as real and authentic as your own. For a lot of people, maybe most people, that is too much. A lot of people, maybe most, feel safest in the company of their own kind, their own tribe. When it comes to choosing between their own tribe and a country that they share with other tribes, a lot of people will choose tribe over country.
And yet, ugly old democracy appears to be the only system in which people can be truly happy. Parties, factions, and interests can compete for power without murdering each other. Every faction has a real chance at governing at some point. The rule of law may deliver up some strange and confounding results, but it protects minorities (created by majorities who single people out for whatever distinction; religion, skin color, sexuality, political views, language, ethnicity, coffee or tea, what shampoo they use, etc.) from over-bearing majorities. Above all, people can decide for themselves how they want to live their lives despite whatever a philosopher king or a majority of the moment thinks is The Right Way To Live. People can choose their friends and travelling companions. They can make up their lives as they see fit. Safety comes not from some Big Daddy, but from the mutual respect and responsibility of neighbors and fellow citizens.
I suppose the arguments now are over what exactly constitutes “mutual respect” and “mutual responsibility.” Where is the line between looking out for neighbor and “minding your own damn business,” between “I’m just living my life” and “you’re putting me and mine at risk?” But those have always been issues in every society that has even a modicum of liberty. This is what law and judicial systems are for, and have always been for. The only real alternative is vendetta and vigilantism which are bad for everyone.
Charles LeBrun, Apotheosis of King Louis XIV, 1677
I think we forget sometimes that we really did have a revolution in the United States, that for much of its early history, the USA was looked upon as an incendiary threat by its very existence. Our imperial ambitions and adventures over the last century and a half dulled that original revolutionary spirit. We forgot what radical ideas sit at the heart of our founding document The Declaration of Independence, ideas that got the document banned in most of the rest of the world for over a century. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That phrase is so familiar to us Yanks that I can type it out from memory. And yet, I think we forget how shocking all of those ideas in the passage were in 1776 when it was written. Most of the rest of the world in 1776, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and not, would have agreed with these passages (full of Biblical proof texts) from Bishop Jacques Benigne Bossuet’s The Divine Right of Kings:
IT IS GOD who establishes kings. He caused Saul and David to be anointed by Samuel; He vested royalty in the House of David, and ordered him to cause Solomon, his son, to reign in his place… Princes thus act as ministers of God and His lieutenants on earth. It is through them that He rules.... This is why we have seen that the royal throne is not the throne of a man, but the throne of God himself. "Jehovah hath chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of Jehovah over Israel." (I Chronicles 28: 5) And again: "Then Solomon sat on the throne of Jehovah." (Ibid., 29:33) . . . It appears from this that the person of kings is sacred, and to move against them is sacrilege. God causes them to be anointed by the prophets with a sacred unction, as He caused the pontiffs and His altars to be anointed. But even without the external application of this unction, they are sacred in their office, as being the representatives of the divine majesty, sent by His providence for the execution of His designs.... There is something religious in the respect which one renders the prince. Service of God and respect for kings are things united. St. Peter groups these two duties together: "Fear God. Honor the king." (I Peter 2:17)
“Inalienable rights” endowed by God? “Self evident” truths? And most intolerable of all, “governments instituted among men?” “Deriving just powers” from the “consent of the governed?” What madness! What an assault on the Natural Order of things ordained by God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures! “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers…” Should the Hebrew rabble decide where they will go next, Moses and Joshua be damned? “Crowns are from God, not from legislatures,” said King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia contemptuously when the Frankfurt Parliament offered him the crown of a united Germany. The modern era began when the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the basic conditions of life for human beings can be changed, that they are not timeless unchangeable verities from God, that human beings can determine for themselves how they wish to live together without any divine intervention in the form of monarchs and nobility.
As the historian James McPherson pointed out, in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War, the odd man out in the rest of the world was the North, not the South. Most of the rest of the world in 1861 looked like the South ruled by a privileged oligarchy and sustained, if not exactly by slavery, at least by some form of indentured labor. It was the North with its industry, relatively free labor, and its independent farmers that was the exception and regarded by much of the rest of the world as a threat by its very existence. Most of the rulers of Europe eagerly anticipated the destruction of the USA in the Civil War, and stood ready to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. To their dismay, the North prevailed, and not only re-affirmed those ideas in that passage in the Declaration of Independence (“…that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth”), but set the USA -- alone among nations at the time -- on a course toward universal enfranchisement, a course it followed in fits and starts until very recently. Few people at the time of the American Civil War understood the war's radical implications better than a German journalist living in London working for an American newspaper The New York Tribune who campaigned tirelessly to rally British working people to the Union cause -- Karl Marx.
Democracy is not utopia. It is not an end or a fulfillment of anything. Utopias mean the end of all conflict and claim to be the end and fulfillment of history. In order to truly accomplish that, utopian movements and ideologies discover that they have to eliminate variation, that the truest security against conflict is conformity. Democracy makes no such claim. It is not an end to history. Democracy points out that conformity is neither equality, nor freedom. Unlike utopia, democracy depends on human variety for its life. History is not ended, just made less dangerous and more bearable. Democracy can always be improved, but perfection is not in its nature. Democracy is a modus vivendi negotiated among selfish and frightened human beings. People who are different from each other, opposite each other, even people who hate each other, agree to somehow live with each other.
Democracy, like youth, is something best appreciated when it is lost. The people who value liberty the most are people who don't have it and want it. The United States invented liberal democracy in 1776 and again in 1865. And now, a substantial part of the American population is tired of it and afraid of what universal enfranchisement means for them; afraid of being lost; and yearns for a strong man to vindicate them. They want freedom for themselves so long as everyone else stays in their chains. They want some kind of racist state where theirs is the master race that rules over everyone else. Today, the USA abdicates its role as the leader of liberal democracy, and its leadership role in the world. The USA is losing the democracy that it fought and worked so hard to create for so many generations.
In many respects, the United States is just one more empire among many, fated to go the way of all the others that ever were. Like all empires, the USA is a big smash and grab of land and resources together with the enslavement and slaughter of conquered peoples. And yet, in the midst of that brutal imperium, the USA became the first state in history to embrace the concept of universal enfranchisement if not quite the reality of it. The USA was the first empire since ancient Rome to successfully incorporate conquered peoples into its project. Barack Obama, an African American, taking the oath of the Presidency was as momentous an event as a Spanish soldier named Trajan taking the imperial purple and becoming the first non-Roman Emperor of Rome. The only thing that would be comparable to both would be a Nigerian or a Bengali wearing the British crown. There were thousands upon thousands of other smaller momentous events throughout our history such as an escaped former slave boy putting on a uniform and becoming a soldier and a citizen. The very real and tangible promise that only democracy can hold before people is freedom and dignity.