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An exploration of the meaning of democracy and its state in America

John Chuckman


When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the first volume of his famous book, Democracy in America, he noted that the single greatest novelty he observed on his travels was what he called “equality of conditions.” A great deal of his analysis of American society in the Age of Jackson hinges on that observation, but as any informed journalist or economist or observer of the human condition today will know, America now features a great and growing inequality of conditions.

Does this change mean that the democracy de Tocqueville observed is disappearing? This is just one of a number of questions we explore.

De Tocqueville, an aristocrat from an old French family, had observed that there was a general movement in Europe towards the decline of aristocratic power and wealth and the increase of middle-class power and wealth, a kind of “levelling” as he called it. He characterized the phenomenon as an “irresistible revolution.”

After his travels in America, he was convinced that this irresistible revolution had gone further there than anywhere else and wished to explain why this should be so and wished to provide guidance for those shaping the future of France.

What de Tocqueville was accurately observing in Europe were the social and political dimensions of what today we know as economic development, although he did not have the language. Today, we know that steady strong economic growth induces change in every aspect of society, political, social, and all its institutions. It is the story of the modern era, measured roughly from the late middle ages, to see changing technology driving the economy towards growth which, in turn, drives increasing social, political, cultural, and institutional changes.

From the late middle ages into the twentieth century, we see once-powerful monarchs gradually become constitutional figureheads while parliaments and assemblies and congresses of elected officials gradually assume political authority. These changes happened at varying rates in different countries now regarded as democratic, and they took on a character reflecting the history and customs of each country, but the overall trend across nations was the same. De Tocqueville saw this, and we see it today in a place as previously exotic to democracy as China.

The key driving force at work in these centuries of change – something de Tocqueville, at best, only vaguely understood – is gradual growth in the size and wealth of the middle class under conditions of continuous economic growth.

The structure of most early societies resembles a pyramid, with a supreme ruler at the top supported just below by aristocrats and priests and the great bulk of people spread along the bottom. In such a society, there is almost no change in status possible, always excepting a natural genius born at the bottom who comes to be recognized for a special skill valued by those at the top. In such a society, most boys end up doing just what their fathers did, most girls end up doing just what their mothers did, and there is limited opportunity to gain education, in part because there is limited opportunity even to use an education.

But starting in the late Middle Ages, something remarkable started to happen in Europe: the rate of change in applied science, ways and techniques for doing practical things, began to change noticeably. The harnessing of water and wind, the control of waterways and construction of canals, the building of new roads, the breeding of superior horses, and a thousand other changes accumulated in their impact to yield a rate of economic growth not previously known. Modest industries began to emerge, trade at greater distances picked up, and that great driver of economic growth, specialization of tasks, began its rise to dominance in society. We are all used to hearing of the Industrial Revolution, but that event did not, as it were, spring full-grown from the head of Zeus. Going back to Henry VIII’s time, and even before, the foundations were being laid with developments like improved plows, improved wheels and axles, ocean-worthy ships, and the enclosure of agricultural property previously treated as commons shared (inefficiently in economic terms) by all peasants during the Middle Ages.

As growth continued and even increased, it created previously-unimagined opportunities to work, to trade, and to make things for others. Those who were successful at these many tasks became what we now call the middle class, and the classic extreme pyramidal shape of early society began to fatten around the middle while the base narrowed. As a larger and larger group of people became well-off through expanding trade and industry, it came to have little reason to trust that a monarch or even, at a somewhat later stage, a group of aristocrats was capable of protecting and promoting its increasingly complex interests. Indeed, in many cases, the traditional aristocrats, whose wealth derived from the ownership of land, were uneducated people, quite ignorant of how business or trade worked.

With the rise of new wealth, gradually, the value of education began to grow along with the specialization of skills. These new men (for they pretty much were only men in the early modern period) proved not only useful to monarchs and aristocrats as advisors and experts but were skilled in gaining political power over time. The changing realities of wealth made them increasingly necessary to the state for everything from loans for trading voyages to supplying large quantities of new goods like guns or preserved food or textiles. Eventually, even many of the lands which had constituted the wealth of aristocrats over many earlier centuries and almost the sole source of wealth in early society began to change hands. Prejudice concerning the worthiness of birth gave way to recognition of the worth of knowing how to do things, especially things which generated new wealth. Respect for titles slowly gave way to respect for money and know-how.

De Tocqueville’s key explanation for the fact that the “irresistible revolution” had gone further in America than in other countries had to do with the nature of the early settlers. Many of them were puritans, what Americans call Pilgrim Fathers, a people who in their religion had democratic beliefs such as all men being equal before God and the rejection of hierarchies in the church. The puritans fled England and some other European countries because they were greatly disliked for good reasons, Americans always putting the events into terms of seeking religious freedom from persecution, and de Tocqueville has no argument with that. However, we now know that the early puritans were often extremely nasty and intrusive and even destructive. Scholars of the Tudor period give us a picture of puritans running through the ancient (formerly Catholic) cathedrals, smashing statues, slashing paintings, and destroying priceless manuscripts. Some puritan groups actually made a point of attending the services of other Christian groups just to make noise and disturb them. So it is quite understandable that they were disliked without talking about anyone trying to suppress their religious freedom.

De Tocqueville does not discuss any of the puritans’ negative history, but he says the puritans brought with them to the New World a good deal of know-how. And, indeed, they did: puritans were often tradesmen and businessmen, a key part of their religious beliefs including the idea that material success was a sign of God’s blessing. So de Tocqueville sees a young, energetic, and entrepreneurial people, all imbued with notions of equality before God, giving America its great start. De Tocqueville believed strongly that a people always bears the marks of their origin, and he was himself a religious man who was glad to be able to attribute America’s democratic success, in part, to “the spirit of religion”.

Except for the “spirit of religion,” a far less clear concept to my mind than de Tocqueville assumed it is, he was right. There was a role for puritan ideas of equality in influencing society’s political orientation. But it is interesting that often groups who seek a freedom for themselves end up later trying to deny it to others, and that was very much the case with the puritans and religious freedom. They were not tolerant, and many of their spiritual and genetic descendants today in the United States are among its least tolerant of its citizens. They are the people who insist on injecting religion into public life, despite Jefferson’s one unqualified great human-rights achievement of establishing religious freedom in Virginia, something in which the sceptic, for so he was, made agreements with the groups who felt oppressed by matters like the established church to which all previously had to pay taxes. Here is another interesting question about American society: whether freedom of religion can remain intact with the constant encroachments made by religious people everywhere from Washington lobbying groups to taking control of local school boards.

How does democracy work in America? That seems a simple enough question to ask, yet a great many people outside of the United States either do not know the answer or understand it in only the sketchiest fashion, and a surprisingly large number of Americans themselves do not know, for the workings of America’s government are complicated, and at times downright puzzling, despite the country’s elegantly simple founding document, the Constitution. The Constitution, it should be noted, explicitly calls the new nation a republic, rather than a democracy, many of the Founding Fathers having a poor idea of democracy – including such notable figures as Washington, Hamilton, and Morris – but few Americans in general speech today would describe their country as other than a democracy, and the Sunday School lessons regularly bestowed upon the world by the State Department never fail to take credit for being a democracy. We shall have more to say on these matters.

Today, a great part of the world is directly affected by the workings of American government through trade and security and financial issues, and no major American policy or legislation may fairly be said to be America’s private interests: that fact is simply the unavoidable result of having become the center of a global empire with treaties and agreements and trade almost everywhere and a currency used as the world’s reserve currency. Yet in this matter there is great confusion among ordinary Americans who like to believe it is no one else’s business what America does.

You cannot have it both ways – be at the center of the affairs of others while demanding that your own national political affairs are no one’s business outside of America – without implicitly advocating a form of aristocracy in which American voters, a tiny percent of the world’s population, decides internal matters in democratic fashion and external matters as a privileged aristocracy. Yet it is common today to find this peculiar combination of views in America.

It is similar to the thinking we’ve seen working in recent years with horrible places like Guantanamo and the rest of the CIA’s international torture gulag scattered over a number of obscure locations in the world. Somehow many Americans accept that the principles of their founding documents and best laws simply stop having any applicability or even meaning just over the American border, making it acceptable to do in a place like Guantanamo what you would not do inside the United States. It represents a rather odd set of principles whose limits are defined strictly by the extent of the jurisdiction of domestic courts. It is of course highly convenient when you are interested in doing some very unpleasant things.

But the inconsistencies in this thinking do not end there. In recent decades, it has become more common for the American government to apply American laws and the authority of American courts to those who are neither citizens nor residents of America. This went to the extreme of attacking a small country, Panama, whose leader, President Noreiga, had displeased the United States in order to arrest him and try him in an American court on American charges.

These inconsistent modes of thinking and acting demonstrate that democratic values do not consistently govern American instincts. If being a democracy means that citizens and their government always put democratic values first, I think it fair to say America has not arrived.

There is a massive industry in Washington consisting of consultants and lobbyists hired at sensational salaries by both foreign interests and Americans themselves simply to reach the appropriate officials with the right words on any given issue. That fact is perhaps the best evidence of how ungainly and swollen American government has become despite the almost pastoral simplicity of its founding.

But this book is not a guide to the mechanics of American government, something which would be a rather dry reading for most readers. Besides, when we ask the question of how something complex works, we usually mean more than having a book of diagrams or organizational charts, we want to grasp a sense of what happens when the machine or organization is running. We want to understand the nature of American democracy and its effects upon American society, and we want to understand the nature of democratic values as they are understood in America and the state of those values in the society.

For some, it will seem odd to ask whether America is a democracy, as that term is commonly understood and as we shall define it, but it is nevertheless a valid question, because America’s founding documents deliberately use the term republic, a concept which today means very little except that you do not have a monarchy. After all, even the Soviets styled themselves as belonging to republics. Many of America’s Founding Fathers – that late-18th century group in frock coats regarded almost in reverence by many Americans – did not believe in democracy and, indeed, regarded the concept rather the way some today might regard Islamic fundamentalism or communism as something alien and dangerous, dangerous especially to the interests of property. And if indeed, as most people assume, America is a democracy, then just what kind of democracy is it?

When Colin Powell was tilting at the United Nations over support for the illegal and unwarranted invasion of Iraq, acting as the friendly face of an administration much of the world viewed as hostile, uninformed, and arrogant, he responded to France’s Dominique de Villepin’s witty reference to France as an old country – “old Europe” having been used by the Bush government as a pejorative to belittle European opposition to invasion – Powell answered back that he represented the world’s oldest democracy.

Powell, despite the positive reaction of the diplomatic audience to his riposte, was wrong. America, by no stretch of the imagination, started as a democracy, and as far as republics go, quite a number pre-date the United States, including the Dutch and Venetian Republics. De Tocqueville’s use of the word democracy comes in a special context, including both his perspective as an aristocrat and the new momentum of expanding the franchise during the Age of Andrew Jackson, the time of de Tocqueville’s travels.

This work is an effort to analyze some of the strengths and weaknesses of American political society as they have evolved since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous volumes of 1835 and 1840, and to offer an assessment of the contemporary meaning of American democratic society. It is also an effort to present a lively, and even entertaining, picture of what democracy means today in America. The author’s perspective and approach to democracy in America are different in many ways to those of de Tocqueville. First, the author is an American by birth, having spent both his formative years in the United States as well as a much later extended period plus a good deal of travel, in total nearly half his life, and I suspect there are nuances and meanings of American political society which only someone who has spent many years there may catch and appreciate. Yet, having lived outside the United States for the other more-than-half of his life and having adopted Canada as his home, the author also sees aspects of America with an outsider’s eye, as de Tocqueville did.

Perspective is everything, as we know from the various witnesses in a criminal trial or from the recollections of friends and associates of a dead notable person whose biography is being written. There is also the principle of modern science that some phenomena cannot be completely observed: given one measurement or observation of a sub-atomic particle, other contemporary ones become impossible. I think there is a sense of this principle which applies in human affairs. There is always some incompleteness or ambiguity in human affairs, something which I believe has not been widely enough recognized. This is why there are always alternative explanations possible in history and biography. To understand an important historical character, it is always necessary to read several biographies, but that understanding will still have inherent ambiguities and uncertainties. No less is true of entire societies.

De Toqueville travelled and wrote at the time of Andrew Jackson’s America, a time when the word democracy had become more common than it was at the founding. Of course, Jacksonian Democracy was itself not all that democratic since the majority of the population still could not vote, and important parts of government were not subject to direct election, including the Senate (originally appointed by state governments and made subject to election only in 1913), by far the most powerful branch of the legislature, but even the Presidency itself was subject not to popular votes but those of the Electoral College.

De Tocqueville, saw the young American society with the eyes of a curious and educated European aristocrat, one coming from a country which had experienced revolution, the ascent of an emperor, the restoration of monarchy, and another revolution which overthrew the restored monarchy. He called what he saw in America “democracy,” and indeed wrote of America’s “universal suffrage,” the property requirements for male voters in place since the beginning having been abandoned to a considerable extent (something actually not complete until a couple of decades after de Tocqueville’s travels), earlier religious requirements in some states having been dropped, and despite his being aware that women and slaves and some others could not vote.

Jackson himself favored the franchise covering all white adult men and abolishing the Electoral College, but Jackson also embraced Manifest Destiny, America’s quasi-religious slogan for continent-absorbing imperialism, the patronage or spoils system in government appointments, the arbitrary removal of American Indians from their homes and settled farms in the East to the Western wilderness, and the importance of the executive relative to Congress – not a set of principles we think of today as especially democratic in nature. But democracy, like anything else, must grow and establish itself by steps.

Interestingly, de Toqueville was from an old aristocratic family, and he viewed America with the eyes of a man who intensely disliked France’s July Monarchy which had been established in 1830, a government which essentially represented the rise of the middle class over the aristocrats. That in itself, as any student of the development of democracy in the modern era knows, is one of the basic steps towards democratic government, the growing interests of the middle class, as an economy advances, being far too large and demanding to be adequately represented by aristocrats of an Ancien Régime.

America today, apart from whatever else it may be, is clearly the center of a vast empire. Yet history provides us with no example of a truly democratic state being an empire, and the contradictions and challenges involved in such a situation seem apparent. Great Britain at the height of her influence in the Victorian period certainly had some democratic institutions, but it was hardly a democratic state when you consider the limits on the franchise and the inadequate, still-corrupt structure of parliamentary representation. There are truly great questions and issues around the idea of trying to be at one and the same time Augustan Rome and the inheritors of those who shook off British imperial power in the 18th century.

The author has made no attempt to produce a purely journalistic or academic effort. Footnotes, as in Page Smith’s great multi-volume history of America, are not used. Entertaining anecdotes have their place. Humor and satire are included because the author believes that subtle truths sometimes come out of laughter which cannot always be captured by reportage or analysis. Absurdity is, unfortunately, a part of the human condition, and one observes it in many forms in various societies. America, despite her advanced status in the world, has at least her share of absurdities and, for reasons to be discussed, likely somewhat more than her share. There is no danger readers will fail to distinguish observations and analysis from poking fun, and hopefully, too, they will enjoy the variety in ways of examining the subject. .

Frequently, false and even laughable claims are made for democracy, largely by politicians and generally without defining what it is that they praise. Defining democracy is no easy task, but, still, making great thumping claims for a poorly understood concept is helpful to no one except those in the business of advertising, marketing, or propaganda. When the State Department or the White House embroider statements about international affairs with bromides about democracy, we have every reason to become alert about what it is they actually are trying to say. That use of the word democracy is invariably dishonest and narrowly self-serving, intended to robe in nobility the basest drives and interests.


De Tocqueville observed that the closest to an aristocracy in America was its lawyers, but he was observing America in something of a golden age, a rather innocent time when people worked hard to improve their worth yet great wealth was relatively unknown. Even in his day, lawyers were disproportionately represented in Congress – today it is sometimes facetiously said that having a law degree is virtually a union card required for working in Congress – and, of course, lawyers were the pool out of which judicial appointments were made. But becoming a lawyer today in America is not a great achievement, there being a huge number of law schools turning out a huge number of lawyers. Day and night, for it is even possible to get an American law degree in night school, and, for all I know, on the Internet. Many of these lawyers do not make a very good living because there are so many of them and so many of them are mediocre talents. So while a law degree today retains advantages it had in de Tocqueville’s day, it hardly marks, in and of itself, entry into an American aristocracy.

De Tocqueville did not believe that anything closer to the European model of aristocracy could emerge under the conditions he saw in America, believing that restrictions on primogeniture and inheritance, some of the mechanisms creating a recurring tendency towards what he called equality in society, would assure something of a middling class of people in America, what we might call Jefferson’s much-idealized class of sturdy yeomen.

In his second book, de Tocqueville does briefly mention the notion of an aristocracy of wealth emerging in America, but he does not develop the idea. It now is clear that, just as once aristocracy grew out of the ownership of land, the primary source of wealth for the Middle Ages, so in a modern democratic state, aristocracy emerges from the newer forms of wealth generated by trade and manufacturing. America’s experience proves that aristocracy and democratic forms of government are not incompatible, that there are forms and practices which can evolve to accommodate this seemingly incongruous situation. I would only make this stipulation: that in the case of something approaching a true democracy, this might not be the case, but America’s government is democratic only in limited aspects, a reality we will examine more closely later.

I believe there is a connection in this to what is commonly observed over time in any modern economy. Early in the life of an industry or enterprise – whether retail drug stores or automobile manufacturing – we often see genuinely competitive circumstances, not the perfect competition of economic theory, but something with enough of its characteristics to be compatible with the theory. Just as recently as the 1950s, there was a drug store on just about every second corner along a neighbourhood’s commercial streets, and many of these were small personal businesses. Going back a little earlier, to the 1930s and 1940s, there was a large number of manufacturers of cars, too, but both of these markets have evolved over the years into what economists call imperfect competition, where only a few large providers of the product or service dominate. And this tendency in markets is actually the typical pattern in a society like America’s: after an early stage of fairly vigorous competitiveness in a new business or industry, a much less competitive market structure emerges. It is a pattern seen in everything from soda pop manufacturers to newspapers.

The people running small drug stores in the 1950s undoubtedly made a fair living and were respectable members of their communities, but the people today owning large corporate drug chains, or large blocks of their stocks if they are public companies, are wealthy people and may even not be associated with a particular community. That phenomenon marks a very great change in the structure of a society over time and over many businesses and industries. The politics and political activities of wealthy people cannot be compared to those of ordinary working people or small businessmen, their very scale representing a change in nature. The inevitable growth in the scale of enterprises – something at work even in such tradition-bound, family-shaped work as farming or fishing – leads to the growth of an aristocracy within even a democratic state, although each citizen retains a single vote.

Other mechanisms are at work too. All laws concerned with restrictions on inheritance and inheritance tax are subject to change over time with the ever-changing face of business and politics. Only recently, Americans saw the Bush government strike down the inheritance tax, and no great waves of protest accompanied the fact, the measure being presented to the public in emotion-loaded and dishonest terms as preserving family farms. The inheritance of huge fortunes or vast on-going enterprises is an essential aspect of aristocracy.

De Tocqueville’s America was well on its way to accumulating truly great fortunes based on the success of new businesses. His “level” or “equal” society was dissolving perhaps at a rate not easily observed in the length of time he travelled. Half a century after his book, during the last part of the 19th century, came the era of the great “Robber Barons,” men whose industrial enterprises had reached immense size and worldwide influence: men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and others. Their vast fortunes were based in the previously unprecedented scale of their operations and from the decline of competition in important industries. A little while later, into the early 20th century, more great fortunes rose through the invention and mass production of new products and processes: the work of people like Ford, Edison, DuPont, or Watson. Needless to say, that trend has continued, even accelerated, and today unbelievably large fortunes are generated by computer-related and other high-tech companies which enjoy near or complete monopoly situations over some years, not just in America but indeed often the world.

The families controlling these great fortunes – whether involved with privately-owned companies or important blocks of stock in public companies – are in every respect aristocracies just as were the earls, barons, and marquises of 14th century Europe despite the fact that some of them enjoy wearing blue jeans or tee shirts. I was at an oil industry conference once years ago and was handed a business card from a representative of the U.S. State Department. I was struck by the family name on the card, Pabst-Wurlitzer, presumably a hybrid of the Pabst Beer fortune and the Wurlitzer Organ fortune. Thus, in the late 20th century, we see the names from mass-produced products in America – from Heinz Ketchup to Hershey’s Chocolate – taking on the same kind of psychological weight and presence as the names of earlier noble families, Norfolk or Westminster, names reflecting ownership of places.

America’s modern aristocracy cannot literally own electoral districts or numbers of voters the way earls once owned the peasants on their land or later controlled certain parliamentary constituencies called pocket boroughs. But America has managed to develop a sophisticated system over time which serves the interests of the aristocrats in a democratic society. One of America’s genuinely original contributions to the modern business world is in marketing and advertising, and the principles of marketing and advertising are indispensable parts of modern elections, especially for national office. Except in rare and special circumstances, you cannot run for national office without a great deal of money, money for advertising, marketing, consultants, and travel. That money simply does not come from the average citizen, and although efforts are made periodically to mount special appeals to the public for “grassroots support,” those efforts themselves are costly and time-consuming, and they still leave the need for large donations which come from America’s aristocracy. Indeed, campaign fund-raising is itself a recognized specialty, a form of expertise, in America, one which involves contacts and access to those able to make substantial contributions.

The Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly ruled that money is a form of free speech in politics, and there is no time in the foreseeable future one can expect fundamental change in this view. The success of money in politics much resembles the success of money in advertising consumer products, with a political duopoly sharing the market for votes just as a food duopoly shares the market for hamburgers or soda pop. Money cannot guarantee you will win in every case, but, on average over numbers of elections, it very much is decisive. The arts of skilful marketing and advertising assure that. A clever message repeated over and over produces votes exactly the way a good ad campaign moves product off shelves, and in modern elections the politician’s message often no more represents his true capabilities than an ad fairly represents the claims of an over-the-counter remedy. Indeed, the public has very much been conditioned to expect politicians often will not do what they said they would do when running for office.

Money – often cynically called the mother’s milk of politics in America – greatly increases the chances of being elected, and, once elected, the giving of money assures donors access to those in office. In a large country like the modern United States, it is virtually impossible for most people ever to meet the president or most other high office holders. In most large states, it is virtually impossible to meet even your senator, there being, for example, in California more than sixteen million people for each of two senators. This was not the case historically in the United States. There was a time that it was at least conceivable for anyone to meet a senator or even a president. The presidents indeed once held levees at which the general public could come to the White House, look around, and shake hands. The effects of scale over time have changed the entire nature of the relationship between those who govern and the governed. So, the access which comes with large donations of money truly has become something approaching exclusive, a situation which again parallels the that of old aristocracies vis-à-vis the king or one of his highest officials.

Senators in contemporary America also possess many of the characteristics of aristocracy. There are only a small number of them, the cost of obtaining the office effectively closes access to most, they are not elected in any proportion to population, and they enjoy great power and privilege. Senators approve every important appointment made and treaty signed by a president: simply by the tardiness of their application they may make a president look feeble. They must also approve every piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives, sometimes called “the people’s house” because it is elected in proportion with population. With the odd exception, especially from smaller states, when you see pictures of American Senators, the images are genuinely patrician in nature. And with good reason because the occupants are either wealthy and influential people or they are dedicated to serving wealthy and influential people, Senate seats do not have a high turnover rate, some of them serving as personal possessions for decades, and the inheritance of seats from father to son is not uncommon.

But the aristocratic nature of the American Senate is not understood just by those facts. The business of the Senate is conducted by committees, and the chairmen of the major committees are extremely powerful people, controlling the flow of legislation and even the discussion of legislation to a considerable extent. The chairmanships are based on seniority in the majority party, and accumulating seniority means some very cosy relationships with powerful families and industries in a district so that the flow of money is large and dependable. Of course, as in life in general, longevity tends to generate conservative principles. Further, we have the privilege of any senator or group of senators to filibuster a bill: they may speak indefinitely to block the passage of legislation. Filibusters may be overcome by a vote of cloture, but this requires three-fifths of senators, sixty senators in today’s senate, a number often extremely difficult to obtain. Thus, legislation in the senate, when there is any opposition to it, requires not just a majority but a supermajority.


You might think from the speeches of American politicians at gatherings such as Fourth of July picnics that they confuse democracy with an exalted religious state, one in which presumably there can be no sin or error. Representatives of the American State Department frequently speak in similar terms, although theirs is a more diplomatically subdued tone, as they announce the annual list of short-comings of the world’s other governments, apparently having been delegated by a higher power the task of separating the world’s democratic wheat from its chaff.

The humorous suggestion of an association between American democracy and religion is more apt than it may seem at first gloss: the entire collection of the nation’s political rituals and practices has been called the American Civic Religion, and not without good reason. There is a rather remarkable conflation in America of the expected norms of national political expression with those of Christian fundamentalism.

This comes despite the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were not religious men as we usually understand the description. The most eminent founders were men of their time, which in the intellectual capitals of Europe was characterized by the Enlightenment. A couple of centuries of pointless, bloody religious wars and persecutions finally had produced a generation of thinkers about society and government in England and France for whom religious questions were no longer a chief concern and, in some cases, no concern at all. Many of these thinkers were Deists and some were Atheists, and just so the main group of America’s Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Morris, and a number of others included.

Yet, to this day in America, the myth persists that America was founded as a “Christian” nation, or at least a nation “under God.” The very fact that this is possible, in the face of contrary historical fact, points to another association between religion and democracy in America.


The expression America’s Civic Religion does not refer to simple, natural expressions of patriotism such as the occasional singing of the anthem or to celebrations around the anniversary of the country’s founding but to what are deliberate and seemingly needless personal public displays and declarations. Some of the displays are not personal but made in groups under considerable social pressure and even sometimes legislation.

The seemingly irresistible urge many Americans exhibit for public announcements of their patriotism and political views parallels closely what happens at fundamentalist revival meetings where believers in the congregation are expected to rise one by one during part of the service to give statements, an act typically called witnessing or giving testimony. When Christian fundamentalists do this, they are generally speaking to their own in the congregation, rather than to non-believing outsiders.

As part of America’s secular political religion, we have flags as lapel pins, not unusual for citizens of many countries when travelling abroad, but in America they are worn at home, and they literally are required of every national politician who does not want his patriotism promptly questioned. For some reason President Obama started his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination without the daily ritual of a flag pin on the lapel, but a storm of rather irrational arguments soon brought him around.

This wearing of flag pins and other patriotic trinkets while walking the streets of your own town does have some unpleasant past associations. One recalls historical practices such as wearing the tricolor cockade during the French Revolution, a practice which, likely more often than not, had more to do with self-preservation than patriotic fervor. Of course, there is always a war-paint aspect to the wearing of such emblems, and it is an interesting and revealing aspect of America’s democratic society that few Americans would publicly question why war paint should be needed in day-to-day life.

But flag pins are not enough of the dear old Stars and Stripes. Every time a speech is made during a campaign, you might have noticed, it is against a backdrop of a gigantic flag hoisted to the wall, something big enough to cover a large portion of a football field and likely requiring a crane to put up and take down, or at least against a whole row of more normal-sized flags on poles with eagle tops and usually gold fringe, stretching across the stage like soldiers on parade. So lots of flag behind and a flag pin on the lapel are the minimum requirements for every tired puff-piece speech from every high school gym or auditorium from one coast to the other. Surely, there can be no confusion in audiences about the nationality or loyalty of the speakers that requires identification of their nationality, but giving a speech in America without these props would be treated exactly like a priest showing up at mass without vestments and chalice.


But actually there is some confusion over loyalty, and that is part of the explanation for the constant display. There is a genuine thread of paranoid fear in America, likely part of the genetic legacy of Puritan ancestors, which requires assurance and more assurance and over-assurance. Evidence for this is found in many aspects of American life. America has displayed from its origins the need for a demon or enemy, the name of the enemy changing periodically but always pretty much being imbued with the same threatening qualities. It is for this reason, I believe Moby Dick the great early American book, far more so than Huckleberry Finn: the image of Captain Ahab chasing the white whale across the world’s oceans encapsulates a profound truth about America.

In recent years, the enemy has been Islam, all its exoticism and mystery portrayed in earlier Hollywood movies having been transformed into dark things and evil plots. Before that, but actually never really fading away, there was Communism as a world-wide conspiracy of the godless. Merging with that was an earlier paranoid strain focused on Asians. America’s native people certainly had their period of being treated as the fearful other. Previous to America’s Revolution and for some time later, there were waves of paralyzing fear over the possibility of slave revolts. The American Revolution itself came about in large part because many colonists viewed Britain’s mere administrative act of putting them under the Quebec Act as a dire threat from Papism.

In grade schools, there is mandated daily pledging of the flag – this in addition to singing the anthem – the pledge being literally an oath taken in public, something which should be abhorrent to all who respect privacy of beliefs or regard the taking of public oaths as inappropriate. The pledge is given by placing the right hand over the heart, much as a witness in court raises his right hand to swear to the truth of his testimony. The practice, which has the important effect of making each person’s full participation easily observed by the others in the group, does represent some moderation over the one which preceded it, for up to America’s entry into World War II, the standard etiquette was the right hand, arm straight, raised at an angle towards the flag, a virtual duplicate of the Nazi salute.

The pledge does not have a long history. Coming into use at the end of the 19th century, de Toqueville would never have observed it, but it is no coincidence that that timing corresponds to America’s emergence as an imperial power in the world. A series of wars and fights and acquisitions belong to the period, including the forcible acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, both in 1898. Interestingly, the original pledge was written by a Baptist minister.

The same hand-over-heart salute also applies to any passing of the American flag or playing of the national anthem, as when, accompanied by the flag, patriotic marching bands pass.

Patriotic marching bands are an American obsession. You might almost compare them to activities like soccer in other countries. Virtually every high school, college, and university in every small or large town is able to field at least one marching band playing bad music in uniforms resembling those favored by the armies of banana republics. The national total of patriotic signs of the cross – if we may so refer to the placing of right hands on hearts – made in America each year thus is likely beyond counting.

Patriotic bands often come accompanied by baton-twirling girls strutting in sequined or satiny outfits with boots, short skirts, and underpants in patriotic colors – the full band experience being a loud blend of showbiz and cheesecake.

Armed “color guards” accompany the flag at even the most humble get-together such as a booze-up for veterans at the American Legion Hall. The rifles carried by the color guard often are decorated – plated with chrome with shiny black stocks and perhaps white leather straps – giving them a visual appeal somewhere between props in a Busby Berkeley number and the shiny vessels raised and lowered by a priest during mass.

There are prescribed rituals around what should be the simple act of raising or lowering an American flag: these are laid out in pamphlets for the general public and in military manuals. I once watched the flag being lowered at the Annapolis Naval Academy where the ceremony reminded me of nothing so much as figures on an antique town-hall clockwork going through a sequence of jerky movements with the striking of the hour.

The flag is not to be left exposed to the dark, so just before sunset is the designated time for the lowering ritual. Why would it matter if a flag were left flying at night? Here superstition clearly plays a role. It is permitted under spotlights, a staging which possibly suggests Francis Scott Key’s vision of it on the battlements under “the rockets’ red glare.” It is all quite melodramatic, but then so are most religious ceremonies.

There is even a prescribed ritual for folding the flag when it is taken down or removing it from the top of a casket at a burial: it is to be folded in a sequence which result in a fat triangular bundle called a “cocked hat” in memory of the military headgear of officers in the late eighteenth century, and with only the blue and the stars showing on the outside. Why an eighteenth century hat? Who knows, but clearly there is the same obsessive, ritualistic quality we find in the prescribed movements of a priest during mass.

You cannot just throw away an old flag either: there are rules for destroying a flag once it has been damaged or has become faded or even has merely touched the ground. It is to be reverently handled by the acolyte who either cuts the blue union from the body of the flag, leaving it safe for disposal then as mere cloth, or the entire flag is respectfully burnt, presumably as though it were a departed loved one being cremated.

Of course, America is a big, brawling, and often extremely messy country, and it includes many who neglect the fine points of some of these official practices, but it is not shady used car dealers, motorcycle gangs, or urban street youth who set the nation’s official tone and rules.

There is a rather scholastic practice common among conservative and militia types of carrying in one’s wallet a folded copy of the American Constitution, leaving the practitioner in a position to settle arguments about rights on the spot. former Congressman Tom DeLay, charged with some very doubtful practices in amassing a fortune in campaign contributions, was a prominent wallet-carrier, always ready to pull it out and start quoting.

There are a good many more testimonials of faith, but I think my favourite is the interminable series of debates in Congress during the last half of the twentieth century on passing an amendment to the Constitution allowing Congress to outlaw desecration of the flag, a so-called flag-burning amendment. The House of Representatives actually several times passed such an amendment, and the Senate came very close to doing so, but in any case long periods of time were spent arguing and posing before cameras over what is surely a trivial issue.

For those unfamiliar, the entire process required to amend the American Constitution is so complex and demanding that only the most deadly serious or politically-charged topics ever are considered. Of course, the catch in the case of flag-burning always is the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. A flag is just a piece of dyed cloth and disposing of it or burning it for some show or protest should be close to indistinguishable from the way you treat an old suit of clothes. But try telling that to a red-blooded patriot, and you could wind up with some extensive bruises for your trouble. How is it that a bit of dyed cloth gets magically transmuted? You might well ask a priest the same question about the wafer and wine.

That whole set of American political behaviors closely mimics religion in its many rituals and in its commandments. What’s more, America’s Civic Religion has its own Holy Writ in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, its own Twelve Apostles in the Founding Fathers, its panoply of saints from Betsy Ross to General MacArthur, and even its own Judas Iscariot in Benedict Arnold. No wonder many Americans get confused about its being a Christian nation.


One argument often heard from more thoughtful Americans trying to explain the seemingly overabundant expressions of patriotism is that the country is a very young one, still uncertain of itself, still awkward in many of its practices. Also, the idea is advanced that the melodramatic expressions are over-reactions to sensitivity around identity. This may have once been the case, but more than two and a quarter centuries after the Revolution seems a bit long to support the argument, at least without raising new issues around a very slow rate of maturing in American society.

There definitely was a time in the 19th century when Americans were self-conscious and ambivalent and over-protective around their identity. A number of American writers went to live in Europe to escape what they regarded as a parochial and rather artistically limiting society. At the same time, other American writers engaged in stubborn efforts to exalt American attitudes and ways in the world’s eyes. During the 19th century a number of important European visitors to American made some fairly tough observations on the state of the society. Apart from the famous, published observations of, for example, Dickens, there were many observations on such day-to-day matters as the practice of chewing tobacco and spitting so common in America that every public building had dozens of spittoons and stained carpets.


Yet another argument, one with a good deal of merit, is that put forward by Conor Cruise O’Brien that America’s excessive patriotic expression serves as a kind of defense against other tendencies in the society which would work against democracy. O’Brien stresses that the one important purpose that all the noise serves, the only welcome and beneficial one for the world at large, is in helping suppress a tendency, easily observable and consistently present through America’s history, towards strong men, often military types, a lack of patience with liberal milksops, and a recurring attraction to authoritarian measures and swift justice and heavy punishment – a tendency, in a word, towards fascism.

That shouldn’t surprise. Deference to authority is a characteristic of fundamentalist religion, whether the authority is understood as the literal words of the Bible or the words of a charismatic religious leader. Characteristic too is the urge for a certain kind of uniformity in human behavior: fundamentalist Christians believe that all people equally require salvation through Jesus and that those who have found that salvation will ever after conduct their lives within certain well-defined rules and standards. Authority and a drive for social uniformity are also, without doubt, fascism’s key characteristics.

The tendency towards fascism in America was observed by the great American journalist, William L. Shirer, around the time of his reporting on Nazi Germany, “Perhaps America will one day go fascist democratically, by popular vote.” Or there is novelist Sinclair Lewis’s line about fascism coming to America draped in the flag and carrying a cross. Influential historical figures like Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor or Charles Linbergh displayed powerful attractions in that direction: Hitler kept Ford’s photo on the wall near his desk in the Chancery and Stalin admired and tried to copy Taylor’s scientific management. This thread in America goes back to John Adams and the Alien and Sedition laws – under which journalists could be, and were, imprisoned for saying the wrong thing – and to the excesses of Thomas Jefferson who one moment could sound like a saintly spokesman for a free society and the next remarkably like an advocate for the opposite. Indeed, Jefferson didn’t just sound that way, he acted that way a number of times in his political career, including his assistance to Napoleon in attempting to put down Haiti’s slave revolt and his imposition, complete with spies and harsh enforcement, of an embargo against trade with Britain which destroyed huge sectors of the New England economy. As well, there was his admiration for the excesses of the French Revolution and all his talk about having to spill blood every twenty years or so for freedom.


Of course, democracy is just a set of rules for organizing ourselves into a society of laws, and there are many variations possible in those rules, and even the best sets of rules, carefully considered as to their fairness, may have some unpleasant consequences. But most democratic governments do not regularly scrutinize their rules in order to improve them, and this may be truest of all in the case of the United States, because it has treated as hallowed rules and institutions which were long ago obsolete from a democratic point of view: these include the Electoral College for presidential elections, the cloture rules for the Senate, the very make-up of the Senate in not reflecting population, the way campaigns are financed, and quite a number of equally important matters.

Most democratic governments are organized with sets of rules which are haphazard collections from the past, accumulations of the accidents of history, and most certainly, even rules designed originally with the intention of entrenching privilege and bias.

I use the term democratic government quite deliberately to distinguish the many hybrid forms which may even have less in them of democracy than of other forms of government. Democracy itself, at least at this stage of human development, is always an ideal which remains an ideal in not being too closely defined. In general, we understand by that ideal a set of rules whereby every citizen has the franchise and exercises it to direct the actions of government, or at least the weighty actions of government. The more complications there are in the rules and the more links to go through in order to legislate, the more remote we are from democracy.

Of course, when American politicians speak about democracy, it is not democracy in general whose praises are sung but America’s particular brand. And that is not an unimportant point since America’s system of government, while having many democratic aspects, is, even in the twenty-first century, a considerable way from anything we could fairly call democracy. Early Americans rarely used the word democracy, instead almost always emphasizing the country’s identity as a republic. Now, a republic is little more than a government without a monarch, one represented by some person or persons elected by a group granted the franchise, however small and exclusive that group might be. There were a number of republics before the United States, including the Venetian and the Netherlands, and a republic need not be at all democratic. If only a small and privileged group holds the franchise, then a republic may be no more democratic than a constitutional, or limited, monarchy. Strictly speaking, at the time of America’s founding, the British monarch had lost so much power to Parliament through several centuries of progressive change and civil war and revolution, that Britain was every bit as democratic as the United States. It may even be not far from a monarchy with few constitutional limits, for a small group of privileged people selecting a leader is not so different to a kingdom with a group of powerful lords who may uphold or topple him.

Democracy may be viewed as a special kind of limit in human political society, the kind we find in the mathematics of differential calculus, something we may approach ever more closely but actually never reach. In that sense democracy is always an approximation, but some approximations are close and some are wildly off.

The world’s major democratic governments appear theoretically organized as Burkean democracies, wherein voters periodically choose representatives who are then to exercise judgment over issues during the time they hold office, having the time and resources to gain expertise as they proceed. In the eighteenth century, when parliaments first were exercising great independent strength, political parties as we know them had not taken hold. The individual member mattered, and parliamentary business often resembled a series of temporary alliances, but the gradual emergence of major entrenched parties, both in parliaments and congresses, has changed all that. We also have, during the twentieth century, the emergence in parliaments of a party’s leader demanding close to complete obedience by members in voting and legislation.

Thus prime ministers have emerged as extremely powerful figures, able to behave quite closely to dictatorial figures in foreign or domestic affairs, at least until such time as their party members revolt. The President in American-style government is a comparatively weak figure in domestic affairs because he does not lead the legislature. However because the Constitution made the President Commander-in-Chief, he has a huge authority in military matters.

This naming of the president as commander-in-chief surely represents one of the serious defects of the Constitution. The Founders believed they had a proper balance and division of power in giving only Congress the power to declare war while making the president commander. But that has proved very faulty in the 20th century. Most of America’s wars since the end of World War II, and there have been many, never involved a declaration of war. It’s almost as though the concept of a declaration of war has become outdated, a relic of the 18th century. But the President’s power as commander-in-chief is no relic. That has become immensely important with a gigantic standing armed forces, something most of the Founding Fathers could not have imagined and by which they would likely be horrified. After America’s ghastly debacle in Vietnam, new laws were passed limiting the president’s unilateral powers over the armed forces, but these just slow things up a bit and are no barrier to a determined president, as George Bush demonstrated with the completely illegal invasion of Iraq.

Today, few elected officials anywhere exercise the tough-minded, independent judgment of an Edmund Burke: the day-to-day practice certainly includes checking the political winds in one’s constituency before charting a course on an issue. But more important still are the political winds of the member’s party leadership, for parties dominate most political activity, leaving room only rarely for a member to depart out of consideration for local constituency sensibilities.

Already in that rough sketch we can see how far from democracy we are.

Some countries allow or mandate referendums – either binding or non-binding – for certain limited matters, such referendums, especially binding ones, being as close as we get to the ideal of democracy. While referendums have been used by state governments in the United States, they are not a practice of the national government.


Winston Churchill gave us one of the definitive comments on democratic government when he said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.

Churchill’s observation is far more than a witty quip, for it certainly identifies one of the fundamental limits of democracy, a tough and seemingly insoluble conundrum. Democracy, as Churchill understood it, is often inefficient, messy, and laggard in dealing with great problems, at least as viewed from the perspective of a person with critical intelligence, brusque personality, and impatience for action – the very kind of man Churchill was. For certainly, a man of Churchill’s exceptional gifts often is able to see an important problem, at least in those areas upon which his interests are focused, before others and often capable of proposing an appropriate solution.

But there have been even more gifted men in history, men who enjoyed power without the constraints of democratic institutions, whose interests focused on matters which brought untold horror to millions – Napoleon readily comes to mind.

Churchill certainly had a claim to authority on the subject of democracy, being an historian of distinction and having served as a genuinely inspiring symbol for the hopes of democratic society during the greatest war in human history.

Yet, as is perhaps not so widely known, Churchill was more than a little doubtful about the most basic component of democracy, the average voter. He was actually savagely cynical on the subject, having once remarked that the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Of course, further testifying to the ambiguity of Churchill on democracy, we have the fact that at the same time he served as a great symbol to free societies warring against tyrants, he was devoted to the continuation of the British Empire, a devotion which influenced his political behaviour during and after the war.


In their complexity and ambiguity, Churchill’s views perhaps provide the perfect starting point in discussing the limits of democracy, although Churchill was not unique in these views among Western statesmen of his time. One finds similar themes in the thoughts and behaviors of Franklin Roosevelt or Charles de Gaulle. Roosevelt stood against the enslavement of others by fascist dictators, yet he was a happy builder of American empire and a politician who did not interfere in some very dark corners of his own society where it might cause problems with his majority. De Gaulle, much like Churchill, was an admirer of empire, so long as it was French.

Empire and democracy are certainly mutually exclusive concepts if by democracy you include all the actors in the story, and not just those in the “mother country.” But many people do not seem to make this distinction. Americans today, many of them, have little problem regarding the nation’s interventions abroad as legitimate because America itself has democratic government, even though those two concepts surely are non sequiturs.

Americans see their origins as a great revolt against British imperial tyranny, and the British establishment of the 18th century saw their Parliament’s rule in the American colonies as appropriate and even beneficent.

The data on colonial American life expectancy, births, and health of population plus the notable comments of some observers from abroad tend to support the historical British view. Many visitors from abroad commented on the relative freedom of the colonies, the lack of war, the freedom from conscription, and the energetic qualities of the local people. Some insightful people rated the pre-revolutionary colonies as the best known place on earth when all factors were considered.

So why was there an American Revolution, perhaps more accurately named an American Revolt because the colonies were simply throwing off rule from abroad rather than entering into any kind of radical departure in the way society was organized? There were a number of republics before America, and Britain herself was well along the path towards more democratic government despite being a monarchy. Newly-independent America certainly was no more democratic than Great Britain, and many of the thoughts and concepts of government attributed to the “Founding Fathers” were not original, indeed most of them originated earlier with British thinkers and the French philosophes.

Nor was America in any meaningful sense more free after the Revolution. It was free of the sensible Crown rules which had tried to prevent rampaging expansion and exploitation over the Indian territories west of the colonies as in the Ohio Valley, or perhaps that is an overstatement since the colonists regularly had broken those rules seeking quick fortunes, George Washington chief amongst them with his land speculation. America was free of British rules governing imports and tariffs, but then many colonists had studiously ignored those rules, men like John Hancock having made fortunes in smuggling, a major colonial industry. America was freed from the wild, paranoid fears about the Pope taking over which Britain’s institution of the Quebec Act had engendered, a major cause of the rebellion, or perhaps that is even going too far since anti-popery remained a fierce attitude in the colonies, with effigies of the pope

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