For almost the entirety of human history governmental systems have not been democratic. Though we in America like to think of Ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy well over 2,500 years ago, even that’s more fiction than fact; the Greek city-state of Athens, with its remarkable stable of philosophers, merely experimented with democracy while denying any political status to women, slaves, non-property owners or anyone not verifiibly of Athenian descent. Democracy in Greece was more of a philosophical idea than system of political reality.
It appears humanity tends towards authoritarianism. Monarchy, theocracy and dictatorship dominate world history, alongside conquest, colonialism, and the storied slaughter of millions of innocents unable to resist the organized power of militarized states. This reality has not stopped humanity from evolving ever-increasing modes of complex organization, and for that matter great accomplishments, scientific achievements and artistic creativity: the architectural wonders of the pyramids of Eqypt, the Incan city of Palenque, The Great Wall of China, the temples of Cambodia, the spiral Tower of Samarra, the Taj Mahal; all these were created in non-democratic societies. To view history through the lens of democracy only is to deceive ourselves about the truth of humanity.
The Democracy Experiment is only a few hundred years old, a by-product of The Reformation which ultimately removed the Catholic Church from the center of government and stimulated Enlightenment thought about individual liberty. The American Revolution provided a unique opportunity to test the theory of democracy, albeit, as in ancient Athens, extended to a highly limited group of white males only. Remarkably, the documents and system of government these “founding fathers” created have proven surprisingly flexible and adaptable and, through the latter part of the 20th Century, progressively extended democracy to those who had originally been excluded from it: women, non-whites, and people owning no real estate. So popular did democracy appear, it spread to countries all across the globe. Despite its considerable inconveniences and limitations, its image of personal freedom caught the world’s attention.
The simple and elegant democratic idea of “one person, one vote” has been, unfortunately, vulnerable to terrible corruption and deceit. Combined with the distance between citizen and government created by winner-take-all representative democracy in a republic, typified by outdated institutions such as the Electoral College and other impediments to direct democracy–financial corruption of unregulated lobbying, campaign finance, corporate power, billionaire influence and gerrymandering of voting districts–events may have doomed America’s Democracy Experiment to failure.
A long-time friend has lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris for fifty years. In that time he’s witnessed enormous change: make-up of the population, increased tourism and an evolving street-scene. When I asked him about his favorite cheese shop down the block, he told me it’s a cell-phone store, now. “Cheese in France,” he declared in his heavy accent, “Eees finish.” He did not say this with anger or bitterness, just an air of the truth.
Forces of property and greed have been unrelenting in attacking democracy in America, and may succeed in completing a bloodless coup that’s taken nearly 50 years. With the complicity of a corrupt congress, ideologically fundamentalist Supreme Court, inept and reckless presidential administration and generations of poorly educated voters, our democracy has never been more threatened. Democracy is never easy, which is why historically it has been rare.
America’s Democracy Experiment: “Eees finish?”