‘Over-rated, over there’. Whither (supposed) US democratic values?


On the eve of the Trump inauguration, The Ericle is – like many others – pondering where and what it will lead to. And like many others, I’m anxious about the prospects.

It may not have escaped my reader’s notice that this blog has more than a passing interest in matters political, domestic and international. This is not surprising as it reflects not only The Ericle’s disposition but also his field of academic study, which includes a degree in International Relations and an ‘A’ level in The British Constitution. In the latter course a great deal was espoused about the significance of the UK’s unwritten constitution, which underpins the concept of the sovereignty of ‘the will of the people’. Even in 1967, when I completed the course, I had my doubts as to how democratically reliable our unwritten constitution was, and would be in the future. (Indeed this question is central to the UK’s Supreme Court current consideration as to whether Parliamentary assent is required to initiate Brexit by a declaration under Article 50, given the ‘will of the people’ as expressed by referendum result). However putting this aside and other democratically inconvenient constitutional matters, such as The House Of Lords & Prime-ministerial dictatorship, the United Kingdom has arguably steered a path whereby its values of democratic freedom, though not unchallengeable, have generally passed scrutiny of its being a fair-and-just society.


In 1967 I spent a ‘gap year’ between school and university in the USA on an AFS (American Field Service) scholarship. Living with a family in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, I attended the local high school as a Senior and took a variety of courses including one interestingly-called ‘Problems of Democracy’. At the time, I didn’t question the course-title but to the best of my recall the course could have been reasonably called ‘American Democracy: No Problems’ as it essentially led down a road which suggested that the separation of powers and the clear divisions between state and federal governments equalled a near-perfect formula for democracy. So that’s all tickety-boo, but is it?

Which brings us then to the meat of the matter. It’s all very well studying the theory of US democracy but how has it played out in practice? I would contend that an evaluation of how democratic any society actually is, requires an analysis not only of its institutions but also how well those institutions work. In other words they may talk the talk but do they walk the walk?


This summer, I took Bill Bryson’s most excellent One Summer: America 1927 with me on my return to New England, where I had spent over 5 years in the employ of ALSG (The American Leadership Study Groups) in the 1970’s. ALSG generated its revenue on the back of the belief that experiencing Europe was both a reward for, and an educational ingredient, to graduation from a US High School – a mirror credo to my AFS experience where the world came to America for the benefit of local communities who hosted overseas students. (In fact AFS had originally been set up for this specific purpose by American Field medics after WW1). However, both these noble enterprises bring to the fore a need; one that unfortunately has come home to roost with the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency – namely that vast swathes of the United States are deeply parochial, inwardly-looking, areas where some quite objectionable ideas and practices fester. To the outsider, this fact has become obscured by the nature of the largely metro-liberal presidents that have enjoyed power since 1945. Nonetheless, anybody who has travelled inland between the coasts will have experienced a culture that is quite different. We’ve also ignored the ubiquitous presence of national iconery and the insertion of religious assertions in everyday life. As a result the rest of the world has filed such matters as ‘Americana’ where we perhaps should have been more questioning of a country that flies its national flag on virtually every corner and whose politicians need to invoke a “And God bless America” at the end of every major speech. Sure we noted the Gun Laws, the Tea-Party, the phoney evangelists and the rest as aberrations on the basis that they represented supposed minority factions but we chose to overlook the sum of the parts that they represented. And the chickens have now come home to roost in a political result that effectively stuck 2 fingers up at the complacent Washington-centric political machines.

This turn of political events is being mirrored currently in virtually every western democratic country. Whether the democratic voices that have ushered in this quantum shift in political opinion will lead to a parallel overturning of democratic values, with accompanying oppression of minorities and by-passing of the rule of law, remains to be seen. Nevertheless I am clear that one size does not fit all and that we need to evaluate matters on a country-by-country basis. I would contend that being outward-looking and fair-minded are inherent elements of the UK’s DNA. Sadly, and this is the basis of my fears, I cannot say the same of the USA.

Bill Bryson’s 1927 reminded me of some of the elements that support that this is so. The book, in Bryson’s inimitable style, is a wide sweep covering American-centred events of that year including baseball (the phenomenon that were the 1927 ‘Babe Ruth’ Yankees), the impact of the arrival of long-distance flight (Lindberg et al) etc etc. But this was also the society that executed Sacco & Vanzetti on dubious grounds, created the Klu Klux Klan, tolerated segregation in the southern states and toyed with eugenics. Moreover the decade saw the presidencies of Calvin Coolidge, who was definitely weird if not mad and of Harding & Hoover, who were certainly self-interested and possibly corrupt.


Since Trump’s election I have read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, which imagines the election of a fascist president in 1936 and the Philip Roth novel The Plot Against America, written in 2001, which imagines the election in 1940 of a fascist President Lindbergh. I don’t think that these imaginings can be disregarded as the stuff of fantasy. They are expressions produced from the depth of the American psyche born of real fears that all is not right within the self-proclaimed cradle of democracy.

In both the novels mentioned above, (plot-spoiler alert) it all turns out alright in the end on the basis of an assumed self-correction whereby the forces of good come again to the fore. This hope notwithstanding, I cannot put aside the times when prejudice reared its head and was put into actual political practice in my own lifetime; events such as the McCarthyism and segregation, which actually happened. History is not a story, it is an explanation of how and why we have arrived at today. I do most sincerely believe the dictum that “those that do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat the lesson of history are doomed to repeat it.” The USA has elected ‘unusual’ presidents in the past but in a different age when they have not resulted in the country turning to The Dark Side. However never before have the election of an ‘unusual’ president coincided with a mass movement calling for root-and-branch change and a real-time environment that enables the evocation of sentiment to be expressed and communicated virtually (sic!) instantaneously. Unfortunately, my reading of American history suggests that the Trump presidency is not a singular event but one born from the very roots of American history; and it is this realisation that raises realistic fears that the USA today may be fertile territory for policies that are quite anti-democratic and potentially very dangerous.






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