THE FRAGILITY of democracy’s promise is becoming clearer with every day that passes. Don’t be fooled by all those inspiring images from the streets of America. No matter how moving, these democratic vignettes do not represent the emerging political reality. For every thousand protesters risking Covid-19 and police violence in America’s public spaces there are hundreds-of-thousands wishing President Donald Trump would stop talking about dominating the protesters and just get on with the job. Those who prove their devotion to democracy by taking action to defend it will always be outnumbered by those unwilling to pay it more than lip-service.
The best historical estimates put popular support for the American Revolution (1776-1783) at around 30 percent. About the same percentage were loyal subjects of King George III. The rest of the population simply kept their heads down until it became clear who had won – at which point they solemnly reassured their neighbours that the victors’ success had always been their most earnest hope.
We should also be profoundly grateful that the science of opinion polling remained undeveloped at the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Had pollsters been given access to the American public in the years immediately prior to the war’s outbreak, they would, almost certainly, have confirmed that those favouring the abolition of slavery constituted a minority of the US population – albeit an extremely well-organised and noisy one. Certainly the number of Americans willing to affirm the equality of whites and blacks in the 1850s would have been vanishingly small. Knowing how substantial was the population’s general indifference to the “slavery question” may well have encouraged the slave-owning southern states to stick with the Union – causing US and world history to take a very different turn.
It is equally disconcerting to discover how many of the most “progressive” Americans had fallen out of love with democracy by the early years of the twentieth century. The problem, as they saw it, was that giving people the right to vote in no way guaranteed that they would use it wisely. Middle-class reformers were appalled at the power exercised by the great working-class, immigrant-based, political “machines”. Controlled for the most part by the Democratic Party, these machines were indisputably corrupt (although no more so than the “Gilded Age’s” rapacious corporations and their market-distorting “trusts”) but the solutions put forward by the Progressive Movement – primary elections, the recall referendum, popularly-generated policy “propositions” – proved to be a mixed blessing. (It was, after all, the primary system that delivered the Republican Party’s nomination to Donald Trump!)
Progressive opinion was even more distressed by the ease with which “ordinary” Americans could be turned against their fellow citizens. The supposedly “progressive” President Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) railed against “hyphenated Americans” (by which he meant German- and Irish-Americans, whose communities remained stubbornly unconvinced by Wilson’s arguments for entering the First World War on the side of Britain and France). Wilson’s suppression of all dissent was aided and abetted enthusiastically by the millions of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans who proved only too happy to intimidate their neighbours into “patriotic” silence. Wilson, an insouciant racist and segregationist, was also a ruthless foe of anti-war socialists and anarchists.
These frightening demonstrations of democracy’s awesome potential to tyrannise unloved minorities inspired progressive writers and journalists – most notably the redoubtable Walter Lippmann – to take careful thought about how the consent of the governed could be “manufactured” by those with less dangerous political instincts than the ordinary voter. Rather than follow the lead of the electorate, argued Lippmann, the Executive Branch of Government should be guided by public opinion – by which he meant by the publicly disseminated ideas of highly-educated and public-spirited intellectuals like himself. Unsurprisingly, Lippmann’s hero was Franklin Roosevelt: the aristocratic president whose “Brains Trust” and brilliant collection of young “New Dealers” encapsulated perfectly the managed democracy Lippmann never ceased promoting in his newspaper columns.
Roosevelt’s principled pragmatism notwithstanding, ordinary Americans – properly aroused – could still inflict a powerful amount of harm. Joe McCarthy’s “Red Scare” of the early 1950s used democratic majorities to suppress the democratic rights of the American Left. For the next 70 years, popular prejudices and political passions would prove remarkably resistant to elite instruction. The great American public were pretty damn sure that the opinions fed to them from on-high by the news media as their own – were somebody else’s.
Watching the idealistic journalists and presenters of CNN declaim in favour of peaceful protest and rail against President Trump’s atavistic instinct to terminate violent disorder with extreme prejudice, I was minded of the last moment in American history when the USA was convulsed from coast to coast by riots and protests. Journalists covering the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago had been outraged at the brutality meted out to anti-war demonstrators by Mayor Daley’s thuggish cops – and said so with considerable eloquence across the mainstream media. Their dismay is easily imagined when, over the course of the subsequent days and weeks, ordinary Americans in their tens-of-thousands denounced not only the demonstrators, but also the “liberal media”, and cheered on Mayor Daley and the City of Chicago Police Department.
The lesson was not lost on Richard Nixon. Four years later, in 1972, his appeal to “the great silent majority of Americans” would be rewarded with one of the most decisive presidential re-election victories in US history. Significantly, his extremely narrow 1968 win was made possible only by the fact that the all-conquering Democratic Party electoral coalition of 1964 had fallen apart. George Wallace, the fiery segregationist Governor of Alabama, was able to draw millions of southern voters away from the Democratic Party’s liberal contender, Hubert Humphrey. By 1972 the Republicans – Abraham Lincoln’s party – had transformed itself into the party of white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism and right-wing populism.
You gotta love the Americans marching for George Floyd and the fragile promises of the US Constitution. But, you also gotta keep your eye on the pale rider in the White House, and understand that behind him Hell follows.