Just Who Fears Democracy? On the Need to Update the American Republic
How have today’s Europeans turned out to be the real practitioners of the American notion of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
March 14, 2012
Some very earnest Americans cling to a stunning, yet categorical belief. They think that the Europeans have long regarded the United States of America as a dangerous nation. Why? Supposedly because the purpose of its government is dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In the late 18th century, that was certainly a radical idea. Back then, Europe’s ruling houses were undoubtedly opposed to the American experiment. But we no longer live in the 18th century. From today’s perspective, the key question is this: Who has come close to making the original American vision a reality?
Here comes the surprise: The Europeans have understood — and realized — the promise of the American Declaration of Independence far better than the Americans themselves. Instead of a rather vapid worshipping of the notion of “freedom,” as Americans continue to do, Europeans have insisted that their governments become truly dedicated to task of organizing their societies so that they promote the ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a remarkably effective manner.
What is the point of the pursuit of happiness if it does not include health care for all, an effective safety net to balance against the risks inherent in the global economy, providing public education to ensure social mobility, sufficient vacation time, maternity leave and so on?
For all of Europe’s current problems, it delivers on that crucial point. Not so the United States, even though the level of public indebtedness is as high there as in most major European countries. One wonders what the worth and purpose of a state edifice is for if it cannot secure sufficient social and economic rights for its citizens.
All this flies in the face of what Americans are taught to believe, of course. They are trained reflexively to castigate today’s Europeans for being insufficiently focused on the precious notions of freedom and the rights of the individual. As if that vague, immaterial notion could provide happiness. In the modern world, it is pure fiction that the individual — outside of the top 5% or 10% of society — can get that accomplished. Smart risk-sharing is pivotal.
American-European role reversal
For further proof of this curious American-European role reversal, look no further than Francis Fukuyama. The inventor of the End of History concept and presumed proponent of post-Soviet American triumphalism has come around to saying that it is Europe — not the United States — that comes closest to fulfilling the promise of history. In his view, the Scandinavian countries, Germany and others in Europe’s northwestern corridor are the true liberal Western democracies, dedicated to ensuring a good living for the broadest number of its citizens.
His about-face should give pause to those Americans who are still devoted to peddling the notion of American exceptionalism, whose main promise — a government built for the individual — sounds great until it collides with contemporary economic and social realities.
These days, few Americans still feel that they have it in them to be the rugged individualists who can absorb all the shocks that life can offer. After two centuries of benefiting from a prolonged economic growth spurt, the United States — the world’s original emerging market nation — is now part of the “old world.”
That is no wonder and no reason to feel ashamed. And yet, because the virtue of toughness and self-reliance is upheld so forcefully in the public debate, Americans still have a hard time acknowledging outright that they are barely coping. A big wave of unemployment and decades of stagnating incomes, while regular family expenditures keep rising, are more than they can handle.
What needs an urgent rethink is the old line that America was established as a republic and that its founders rejected direct democracy because it didn’t protect the individual from the “tyranny of the majority.”
Tyranny of the majority? Rejecting democracy? This from a nation that has used the idea of democracy promotion as the unifying theme of its own foreign policy for the past two decades?
Historically speaking, these statements about the original framework of the Constitution are true. The question that should be at the heart of the current U.S. political debate is this: Isn’t it time to move beyond 18th-century notions of the conservative set of the Founding Fathers?
After all, theirs was no democracy, but a parliament convened from the ranks of what used to be called the landed gentry in England of old. Virtually all of them property owners, they were keen to protect their privileged material positions from any potential onslaught, or power grab, by the “masses.”
That endeavor, as a matter as sheer self-interest, is understandable. But it is no longer acceptable in a country where the political base, 235 years on, has shifted far away from just property owners. As a matter of fact, the whole idea of referencing the Founding Fathers so devotedly is a very transparent effort to keep the entire U.S. political debate in a time warp.
The best way to understand the fears the Founders had with regard to the American people at large is to equate it to the animosity and fears generated deliberately about today’s immigrants (and, in particular, Latinos).
The longer the official American debate, especially in the Republican Party, clings to its individualism-and-freedom rhetoric, the more removed it becomes from the real-life concerns of ordinary Americans.
No matter how much efforts to bring about a better social and economic balance in the United States are denigrated as “class warfare,” they will not ultimately prevent the deep-seated frustration from rising to the surface. The more and the longer it is suppressed, the more virulent it will become.
Fearing the tyranny of the majority is an untenable concept in the 21st century. Any nation purports to promote democracy abroad but is beholden to that notion at home automatically loses credibility. In fact, there are those who argue, with good reason, that the United States promotes democracy abroad so intensely precisely because it lacks the domestic consensus to do the same at home.
The sad but inescapable reality is that, in terms of how it manages political power, the United States has transformed itself into a clever modern version of Prussia’s old political order, where wealth and land ownership conveyed political power from generation to generation.
But don’t expect to hear a serious debate about the purposes of American democracy any time soon in the capital city of Washington, D.C. That is a place where the top 5% of households have an annual income of $473,000 — a stunning 60% higher than in other large U.S. cities.
This overclass of lawyers, lobbyists, pollsters, association executives and other professional influencers has a direct stake in the preservation of the old order of the landed gentry. Not only does the established order serve them very well, they are also very well compensated for their ardent efforts to uphold the status quo.
The Europeans have understood the promise of the American Declaration of Independence far better than the Americans themselves.
What is the point of the pursuit of happiness if it does not include health care, an economic safety net, public education, sufficient vacation time, maternity leave and so on?
America's Founding Fathers were keen on protecting their privileged material position. That endeavor is understandable, but it is no longer acceptable.
Few Americans still feel that they have it in them to be the rugged individualist who can absorb all the shocks that life can offer.