Friday 17 January 2020

Still Waiting For American Democracy.

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.


petes new write said...

Old, old news Chris. certainly legend. I suggested to an American that there are really two or three Americas. The answer was probably four or five. There is no hope for America as a democracy when its system allows for the election of a Donald Trump despite a majority of American voters rejecting him - all achieved through their so-called electoral college. If Trump is re-elected you will undoubtably see attempts to allow longer terms of the presidency like Putin In Russia, despite the lack of a war.

Patricia said...

Chris, have I offended you in some way? I wrote a response to your article on Iran, which you didn’t post. That was the second post that has been rejected. I can’t remember what the other one was about. If I have offended you I apologise.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Patricia.

Not at all, Patricia! I always enjoy your comments. Perhaps one or two have been lost in the Blogger machinery. It happens.

Please keep the comments coming!

Anonymous said...

In response to petes new write - the situation of Trumps election (through the machinations of their Electoral College) is very similar to the election of Ardern here (though we don't vote for a PM, but virtually do these days thanks to identity - is that the word I'm searching for? - politics). The majority of NZ voters likewise rejected Ardern, but the machinations of our system - MMP - got her (party) elected. So we can't rant and rave about the seemingly unfair machinations of political systems in other countries as we have the same here. Much as lots of people may be dissatisfied abroad and here, the result is the result.....

greywarbler said...

Unfinished Repu..? Repugnant perhaps, inserted and preventing the Republic intention to flourish.

(google: Repugnant:
2. in conflict or incompatible with.
"a by-law must not be repugnant to the general law of the country")

Tom Hunter said...

Well of course the Founders specifically said they were building a constitutional republic with a democratic basis - not some sort of atttempt at a pure democracy, which they held to be a nightmare that could destroy the nation.

Which is why even the central government is split into three co-equal branches with specific powers allocated to each and a jealous defence when one branch thinks another is encroaching on it - with the whole forcing political compromise on those fights.

It's why the whole nation is split Federally, with different powers at different levels and - again - a specific expectation that they will fight with eachother and with central government over how those powers change over time.

It's also why they initially has a Senate whose members were specifically not voted for by the people - that was what the House of Representatives was for - but selected by the elected representaives of each State government. The Senate was there to protect the states against central government. That remains the case even though in 1913 it was modified to allow people to directly vote for their Senators.

Finally it's why the Electoral College exists: it's there to provide a large mandate derived from only a small vote advantage, such as Abraham Lincoln having a huge win in 1864 despite "only" getting 55% of the vote. The Founders were not worried by this FPP-type scheme being less than pure democracy because they did not believe in or accept the "purity" of that anyway, and because it was merely one third of the government. The days of gigantic Administrations with thousands of bureacrats to control things irrespective of elections, and the Congress effectively letting Presidents take some of their powers, were far in the future. Even then the answer is for Congress to take back thoese powers , rather than going for something like the popular vote, which would simply mean the nation was run by the East and West Coasts - some democracy that would be: the tyranny of the majority.

And that last is precisely why the USA is not a "pure democracy' but a constituional democratic republic.

Tom Hunter said...

While the democratic ambitions of Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson remain the stuff of school-children’s class projects to this day.

That was true once, but not since the 1990's and less the case with every passing day. Examples:

- Communist Howard Zinn's excerable "history' book, A People's History of the United States, has seen two million copies sold almost exclusively for use in American high schools since it was published in 1980. It's a key book for their history teachers, even as it trashes every aspect of the USA.

- The NYT's 1619 effort, specifically designed as a teaching aid to be distributed across all US school classrooms and entirely focused around the argument that the USA started that year with the first slaves and that every aspect of the nation has since revolved around that factor. This has been eagerly taken up across public schools, despite being ripped apart by professional historians. The NYT has simply dismissed the latter.

-The New York schools teacher training effort which identifies the traits of "White Supremacy" they need to watch out for ("perfectionism" being one such trait apparently, plus others just as crazy).

- FInally there is the following article last year in The Atlantic, where a classic bleeding heart US "Liberal", and hater of Trump, details the extraordinary collapse in public school learning standards in NYC and bemoans the failure to teach civics as was once done. The piece is capped by the authors descriptions of his 13-year old son crying the night Trump won, but having no idea how to fight back aside from having such 'feelings'. Amazingly the guy who wrote this anguished piece is at a complete loss as to how all this happened in his Democrat-run city and school system, even as he details all the things he celebrated that have brought this about.

I'd say one more generation of all this type of education, and the USA has a good chance of becoming the sort of "democracy" the Left so badly want it to be by dumping all those "undemocratic" institutions that they object to.

Wayne Mapp said...

petes new write,

It really is a ridiculous assertion that the US will change their constitution if Trump gets re-elected. It is almost impossible to change the constitution. While I may be pretty unimpressed with Trump, so far all the ridiculous assertions about him simply haven't happened. No great war, no war against US citizens, no recession. Yes, things have happened, but apart from his tweets, in truth not that much.

Has Trump made the US a permanently inward looking and insecure state? In my view, not really, the next President will be quite unlike Trump.

However, the fear of a rising China seems to make Americans right across the political spectrum very nervous. The competition between China and the US will continue, but it was there well before Trump.

Sam said...

Pete: What I see in murder victims is something that does not need education. When I hear agonising pain I do not hear myself. When I see bones breaking I do not see myself. These are the questions that ought to be fought over.

For example Instead of asking if Israel treats Palestinians properly and get this boring debate about who's got the biggest ouchy.

A better question is what was Jewish people in the first place to the eyes of the establishment, and what type of monsters were they. These are the questions that should be asked.

We can see in first contact movies with aliens and we see the frightened faces looking up and then we can see the monstrosity that we are.

pat said...

NZ's treatment of minorities post WW1 is only marginally better....history is important but the saying "its a foreign country" applies double when it is indeed a foreign country

sumsuch said...

During a bleary rainy 8 months in Invercargill in the early 2000s I found a cassette of Len Cohen's for sale at the dump. Never failed to laugh at 'you take Manhatten and I'll take Berliiiiin'.

Well said, Chris.

The real deal in America is the rich used to share the loot.

Relatively, all the rich 'democracies' bought into that.

McGovern, and now Sanders. The American oligarchs -- Dem or Rep -- don't understand the problem, not having a problem themselves. So, going back to the model of the 30s, and given everyone secluded into their own information group, it's more likely, without a crisis, America will jink for fascism over demo-cracy. And that'll serve them well for a few more years than others.

Trev1 said...

The United States is a strong and vibrant democracy Chris that puts New Zealand to shame. Yes it takes money to be elected but I doubt any of it is funneled from the Chinese Communist Party. Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution whereas it is under increasing attack by our government. The separation of powers provides a strong system of checks and balances and imposes limits upon the ambitions of individual politicians. Our system is an elected dictatorship every three years. So I think you are wide of the mark here: America is still very much a beacon on the hill against increasing totalitarianism including that which we now find in New Zealand.

Nick J said...

Spot on Wayne. Trump is merely a symptom of a house out of order. I see far more danger to US democracy (imperfect as it is) from the unholy alliance of a deeply corrupt Dem Party hierarchy with the "deep state" that Eisenhower warned us of so long ago.

Sam said...

That becon on a hill you claim, Trev1, could just as easily be a laser range finder marking your position for droning. America has pulled out of the Iran deal, they've pulled out of the TPP, they've pulled away from NATO, Once your reputation has been pawned it can't to be redeemed for the same value. America is telling the world, you're on your own.

David George said...

Thanks Chris; always enjoy a bit of Leonard, though one of my friends says his music is suicide inducing. Claims it's usually playing when they cut the rope from the ceiling.
One of his great's is (the frankly apocalyptic) The Future from 1992.

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it's lonely here,
there's no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that's an order!
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant

You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little jew
who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going
any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future:
it is murder

Things are going to slide ...

There'll be the breaking of the ancient
western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There'll be phantoms
There'll be fires on the road
and the white man dancing
You'll see a woman
hanging upside down
her features covered by her fallen gown
and all the lousy little poets
coming round
tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson
and the white man dancin'

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ
or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby:
it is murder

Things are going to slide ...

When they said REPENT REPENT ...

sumsuch said...

Kiwidave, always so much better than Bob Dylan. Even if neither of them said anything outright. 'Riders on the easiness'. Cormac McCarthy of 'No Country for Old Men' spoke our prospect best in the one line film drama, 'The Road'( it appears in the credits).

sumsuch said...

Such a strong probability … the American Republic will deal with Sanders like the Roman Republic dealt with the Gracchi

Pissed off about Stephan Mills's comments about we 'far Leftists' on RNZ politics programme this morning. In the country of Ballance and Savage. I.e. despise the last 36 years for the strong.

What's left morally beyond the rule of the people and the rescue of the Maori poorest? Just self-serving fools til the cliff. That's the latest, newest thing, the cliff. Good fun with rationalisation as reality, the also latest , newest thing. Two sibs deify. Cretans.