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European Origins of American Democracy

Does America have unique democratic ideals?

June 11, 2003

Does America have unique democratic ideals?

It is interesting to recall these days that, in the middle of the 20th century, both U.S. liberals as well as conservatives were Atlanticists.

As a matter of fact, the post-war conservative movement of William F. Buckley, Jr. united Americans and European intellectuals and politicians in a sophisticated critique of the transatlantic social democratic left.

Today, things are very different. The sense of a common Western civilization defended in different ways by Cold War liberals and Cold War conservatives in the United States has been replaced by an American triumphalism — or, in the case of Europhobic Brits, by embracing the "Anglosphere."

Along the way, an amazing assumption has become the prevailing belief: The United States — alone or as the spearhead of the family of English-speaking nations, single-handedly invented liberal democracy and promoted it in the world. Or so the triumphalist American Right would have everybody believe.

Contrast that attitude with America's founders. They had a completely different attitude.

They saw themselves as the heirs to a long tradition of liberal and republican thought, stretching from the Roman Republic through the Italian city-states of the Renaissance to the Dutch Republic and the ill-fated English republic of Oliver Cromwell.

The masterpiece of the American Founders on this topic was the Defense of the Constitutions of the United States (1787) by John Adams, who also served as the second president of the United States.

In his three-volume work, Adams studied the constitutions of republics ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to contemporary Switzerland. He basically searched for models to be emulated — and mistakes to be avoided.

The drafters of the U.S. federal constitution, and the three authors of the Federalist Papers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay — relied heavily on Adams's study of European precedents for their concept of American democracy.

The example of the American republic, in turn, helped inspire the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789 — the same year in which the U.S. federal constitution went into effect.

As a sign of appreciation, the Marquis de Lafayette — who had fought in the American Revolution — sent President Washington the key to the Bastille.

As it turned out, France had a much harder time in landing a dependable democracy than the United States. The moderate republicanism of Lafayette and the Americans was defeated in France, first by radical republicanism — and then by dictatorship and monarchy.

Despite these setbacks, the example of France proved pivotal on a global basis. How so? France was even more important than the United States as a model for 19th century democratic reformers and revolutionaries, in Europe — and throughout the world.

When the first stable French democracy, the French Third Republic, was established in 1870, France as well as the United States proved that democratic republicanism — which in the past had only been associated with small city-states — could work in a modern, industrial nation-state.

How a government is basically organized is as important as how its leaders are selected.

Modern liberal democracies owe much of their bureaucratic and military organization to the example of Prussia and Wilhelminian Germany — regimes which combined political authoritarianism with the ideal of the Rechtstaat — or constitutional state governed by law.

In the late 19th century, U.S. political scientists and reformers like Woodrow Wilson, a professor before he became a political scientist, studied the German example in areas ranging from municipal administration to the jurisprudence of federalism.

Long before World War I, Americans rejected Prussian-German militarism and monarchy.

But they believed that liberal democracies could benefit from the adoption of German organizational efficiency. The Joint Chiefs of Staff as an institution owes a great deal to the German General Staff, as does the American civil service.

The list of elements of American liberal democracy adopted from Europe or other western countries could be extended.

Key items include workmen's compensation (an import from Germany and New Zealand), the voting systems of proportional representation used in some cities like San Francisco (first pioneered in Northern Europe around 1900), the secret ballot (Australia), Social Security (Imperial Germany again).

But still, despite all these vital imports that make up key parts of U.S. democratic life today, didn't America bring democracy to the rest of the world in the twentieth century — as American triumphalists might object?

The answer is a qualified no. Yes, the United States defeated Imperial and Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But it did not do it by itself.

Rather, it was part of coalitions of great powers — including communist powers (the Soviet Union standing up against Nazi Germany, and the People's Republic of China against the Soviet Union in the last stage of the Cold War).

The liberation of the nations of Western Europe from Nazi tyranny, and of Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny, made it possible for them to adopt democratic constitutions — for the first time in some cases, for the second (or third) time in others.

But most European countries in the West and the East — whether after World War II or the end of the Cold War — have rejected the American model of presidential democracy for a parliamentary (or semi-parliamentary) system.

And most European democracies reject the primitive Anglo-American method of plurality voting for the more democratic system of proportional representation, in one or another version.

Democracy in Latin America has been even less influenced by the United States. The democratization of the region during the last generation came from within.

Efforts by the United States to impose democracy in Latin America by force — in Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua — have usually failed.

To make matters worse, during its rivalries with Imperial and Nazi Germany as well as the USSR, the United States often propped up pro-American dictatorships in Latin America. In some cases, such policies may have been justified by the unpleasant realities of power politics.

Still, this region's history alone makes a mockery of the basic claim that the United States has always been devoted to promoting liberal and democratic government wherever it has had influence.

The truth, then, is that the United States, like France, is one of the older siblings in a rapidly expanding family of democracies.

Today the newest members are Eastern European and Latin American. Tomorrow, they may be Chinese and Nigerian and Iranian.

Like the United States before, these countries will pick and choose those elements from the broad menu of options available in the transatlantic — and now global — democratic tradition that suit their societies best.

And when they adopt democratic and liberal values, the result will not be the triumph of "American" ideals, but of human ideals which the United States happens to share.