Unfinished Republic: Though the United States' crimes against democracy are legion, most Americans are blissfully unaware of them. The brutal realities of American life: the officially sanctioned violence; the refusal to hold racists accountable for their actions; the seemingly endless tragedy of African-American suffering; of which White America is the ever-resourceful author; are routinely disremembered. While the democratic ambitions of Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson remain the stuff of school-children’s class projects to this day. (Image by Filip Bunkens.)
“IT’S COMING TO America first, the cradle of the best and the worst.” Writes Leonard Cohen in his classic 1992 anthem Democracy. As is so often the case with Cohen’s lyrics, Democracy is jam-packed with meaning. That he writes about democracy as something that has yet to happen is only the first of the song’s many challenges. The second – and certainly the most contentious – is that when (or should that be “if”?) the people do finally seize power, it will be on American soil.
Most Americans would, of course, take strong exception to the claim that the United States has been anything other than a democracy since 4 July 1776, when Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence avowed that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those who, not unreasonably, object that the Declaration’s “all men” excluded women, slaves, and the continent’s indigenous peoples, will be invited to consider another great document of American democracy, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. Especially its concluding pledge that “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
So enamoured were enfranchised Americans with their “government of the people” that just 53 years after Lincoln’s famous speech, his successor in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson, was urging his fellow citizens to enter the First World War to “make the world safe for democracy”.
It is one of History’s many ironies that the same president who proclaimed America’s determination to establish democracy abroad, unleashed an unrelenting assault on American citizen’s civil liberties at home. Reducing the Bill of Rights to confetti, the Sedition and Espionage Acts made it a crime to oppose – or even question – the USA’s participation in the War.
The job of “selling” that war to the American people fell to a young “progressive” journalist, George Creel. His formidable “Committee on Public Information” pioneered propaganda and public relations techniques that would become increasingly familiar to humanity as the Twentieth Century unfolded. To the delight of America’s ruling elites, the CPI demonstrated just how easily “the people’s” consent could be manufactured.
The most glaring and tragic discrepancy between America’s loftily proclaimed ideals and the actual beliefs and behaviour of her citizens was revealed in the dreadful “Red Summer” of 1919.
Hoping that their commitment to the cause of establishing democracy abroad would finally secure for them the long-promised blessings of democracy at home, African-Americans signed-up in their thousands for military service in France. Returning home after the Armistice, however, in the winter and spring of 1918-19, these Black soldiers became instant targets for angry mobs of White Americans, outraged and terrified in equal measure by the very thought of Black Americans in arms. Between June and August 1919, murderous race riots flared in 25 American cities, leaving hundreds of African-Americans dead and many thousands homeless.
Of the awful deeds of his fellow citizens: the beatings, shootings, lynchings, and destruction by fire of unprotected Black neighbourhoods, churches and businesses; the eloquent and visionary President Wilson, hailed by millions as the world’s saviour when he arrived in Paris for the peace talks, said not one word.
Though these horrors occurred barely 100 years ago in the United States, most Americans are blissfully unaware of them. The brutal realities of American life: the officially sanctioned violence; the refusal to hold racists accountable for their actions; the seemingly endless tragedy of African-American suffering; of which White America is the ever-resourceful author; are routinely disremembered. While the democratic ambitions of Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson remain the stuff of school-children’s class projects to this day.
Small wonder, then, that Cohen celebrates America’s contradictions by admitting that “I love the country, but can’t stand the scene”. In Democracy’s final lines, Cohen – ever the prophet – even anticipates the emergence of those disillusioned working-class Americans who, no longer identifying with either the Left or the Right, immure themselves in an increasingly decrepit domesticity, desperate for a saviour to emerge from “that hopeless little screen”.
Never quitting, because “like those garbage bags that time cannot decay” they’re stubborn. Choked with tears, but refusing to let go of the hope that, one day:
“Democracy is coming to the U. S. A.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 January 2020.