Today, many scholars and critics are lamenting the fall of democracy in the US. They seem to be missing the mythical “old America” when the foundational principles were not yet compromised by chaos, social division, and the authorities’ top-down decisions. The opponents of the contemporary political regime hope for a possible resolution and a return to democracy. However, the question arises as to whether the country has ever been one even to give the critics any point of reference for contrast and comparison. This essay will provide four reasons as to why the US was not built on the principles of democracy and has not genuinely complied with them to date.
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To understand the nature of the state that is the US, it is vital to go back in history and understand the motives and intentions of the first settlers. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the British Empire was in its prime (Warren 30).
Its power and leverage on par with resources and technological advances allowed for rapid and aggressive expansion overseas. It is evident that the conquerors did not invade the Americas in the name of freedom or equality, nor did they promote unity for all people. They saw exploring the territories of the modern US as another tool to gain a competitive advantage over other countries and enrich their motherland – a scarcely democratic outlook.
To British colonists, the world that they discovered was ‘new’ although it was centuries old and housed many nations with unique customs, traditions, and lifestyles. However, in the eyes of the conquerors, their culture was not worthy of any respect and, hence, was diminished and eventually destroyed. European settlers expanded through power and conflict since coexistence with a vast indigenous population that also had weapons, even though subpar to those brought by the conquerors, was not an option. Although many Natives died of diseases against which they had no immunity, a significant number of people were slandered in genocidal assaults.
Soon after Europeans set their foot on the modern US territories, they joined the transatlantic slave trade, which was another atrocity and a crime against humanity. Captive West Africans had to travel for days, congested and suffering from heat, thirst, and hunger (Warren 150). In North America, they would become chattel slaves that could be subject to transfer, sale, cruel treatment, and even murder.
Moreover, many colonists came to North America for financial reasons as they could not sustain themselves in the Old World. They took their families, in which women were assigned the role of domestic servants. Even though those women were of European descent, which back then was seen as superior to other racial backgrounds, they did not gain extra rights and remained trapped in the confines of their homes (Warren 89). Thus, European expansion created a state with a clear division between the colonizer and the colonized, the masters and the servants, the rich and the poor. The majority of the inhabitants, “the people,” ‘re not seen as human, while the freedoms of the white man were almost unlimited.
The Founding Fathers
By 1776, after several years of attempts to cut ties with the British Empire, the US had finally gained full independence. The key figures in that process were those who are now referred to as the Founding Fathers of the United States. The seven men shared some commonalities: all of them came from the educated elite, resided in older settlements, and belonged to the upper-middle class. They were of British descent and Protestant faith and represented a meager fraction of the population. Interestingly enough, they had one more characteristic in common: they were explicit in their distaste for democracy.
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The views of the Founding Fathers were nothing outlandish as they were held by the majority of European Enlightenment thinkers. They saw democracy as a threat to the social structure because the masses could not be trusted with governance (Paul 205). The Founding Fathers’ convictions were reflected at large in their writings. For instance, Hamilton argued that excessive inclination to democracy would lead to a drastic change of the regimen, with some of the options being monarchy and dictatorship (Hoebeke 90).
Jefferson questioned the notion of majority in democratic processes: he saw a situation in which 51% of people could influence the fate of the other 49% as deeply unfair (Hoebeke 98). Madison emphasized the incompatibility of democracy with personal security; for him, that political form was associated with turbulence and violence (Hoebeke 113). All in all, the Founding Fathers made everything possible to keep democracy at bay. Even though they proclaimed the US a republic, it was rather an aristocracy and a despotic one.
The Electoral System
One may argue that the reality that US citizens are living in today has grown too detached from the events that took place 200-400 years ago. The history of almost any country in the world is marked by human rights violations, yet today’s reality is not similar to one that existed during the foundations of electoral legacy. Silbey and Bogue state that elections provided ample opportunity for people to expresses their opinion and penetrated the outer level of political life to impact it via public opinion (175).
While the US acknowledged many misdeeds of the past days, the legacy of the old times still lingers and has a massive impact on the country’s political life. At the same time, Senate also seems to be undemocratic since, for example, in 2017, the coalitions of senators who represented less than 50% of the population made decisions (“The Senate”). These days, the electoral system receives a great deal of criticism, and some scholars go as far as calling it downright undemocratic.
Such a claim is not entirely unfounded since the US constitution itself violates the one-person-one-vote doctrine. First, the number of senators from each state is not in proportion to its population. This peculiarity led to incidents when lightly populated states such as Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming get more representation per capita than the most densely populated state in the US, California. 39.1 million Californians have the right to choose two senators, just like Alaskans that houses around 730,000 people (Bugh 76). Second, the Electoral College membership depends on congressional representation, which renders voting in specific states practically useless (Bugh 140).
The smallest states have disproportionately great power, and their choices do not reflect what the majority of Americans wish for when they go to the polls. Lastly, there is a phenomenon of gerrymandering – redistricting states in favor of a particular political party (Chen and Cottrell 330). Every ten years, the census board updates the borders of congressional districts to determine the location of Republican and Democratic voters.
The election of Donald Trump and his actions to date seem to be testing the entire US system of laws, values, and beliefs to destruction. The scale of his ambition that has only been expanding over the last three years has appalled many scholars. According to Tisdall, the state that the country is currently in can be described as a “national meltdown.” Trump has repeatedly expressed his readiness and even willingness to resort to nuclear weapons.
The US has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and if President were to hold his “promises,” the global effect would be devastating. Yet, he did not shy away from threatening to destroy North Korea, home to 25 million people (Tisdall). Tisdall argues that there is not a mechanism or procedure in place that could allow for vetoing a presidential launch order. The very possibility that a single individual can make a decision with such ramifications is deeply disturbing – and undemocratic.
In recent years, there have been a lot of concerns about the state of democracy in the United States. The election of Donald Trump after eight consecutive years of the Democratic Party’s reign was seen by many as a threat to core American values. The current President’s controversial and, at times, inconsistent policies did not help either. Nevertheless, President Trump is not demolishing the foundations of US democracy, at least because it is impossible to destroy something that has never existed. The US political system has been Republican at best, and its undemocratic practices date back to the times when the country just emerged.
British expansion wreaked havoc on indigenous nations, and the transatlantic slave trade only contributed to the establishment of a deeply divided state. The Founding Fathers were fervently against democracy and warned successive generations about its perceived threats. Lastly, the Senate and the electoral system are far from democratic as they do not employ popular vote and instead rely on state representation.
Bugh, Gary, ed. Electoral College Reform: Challenges and Possibilities. Routledge, 2016.
Chen, Jowei, and David Cottrell. “Evaluating Partisan Gains from Congressional Gerrymandering: Using Computer Simulations to Estimate the Effect of Gerrymandering in the US House.” Electoral Studies, vol. 44, 2016, pp. 329-340.
Hoebeke, Christopher Hyde. The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment. Routledge, 2017.
Paul, Heike. The Myths that Made America: An Introduction to American Studies. Vol. 1, Transcript Verlag, 2014.
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Silbey, Joel H., and Allan G. Bogue. The history of American electoral behavior. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Tisdall, Simon. “American Democracy Is in Crisis, and not Just Because of Trump.” The Guardian, 2018. Web.
Warren, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. WW Norton & Company, 2016.