The Fragile Promise Of American Democracy


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.

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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.



  1. The USA has never been a democracy. It commenced [in European terms] as a dumping ground for ‘undesirable’ people, taken their by opportunists to work the land on behalf of wealthy people: if you disagreed with the way the authorities were running things you were murdered -often after a torture session. Your best option was to run away from the settlement and live freely or join a local native tribe; that way you were less likely to die of starvation.

    When the white people proved unsuitable as slaves for the rapidly developing plantations, the authorities came up with a grand scheme for abducting people from Africa (or buying them from African slave traders) and carting them under appalling conditions to the slave auctions and then , to the plantations, where they were abused for their entire lives, but allowed to breed to increase the supply of slaves.

    Having exterminated the bulk of the native population and stolen their lands, the people who lived in the states declared themselves to be ‘God’s chosen people’ -thus commenced American exceptionalism. When they disagreed with the British authorities about taxes they revolted and declared themselves to be the ‘land of the free’, with rights, unless you happened to be Negro, Chinese or female etc.

    Once the railroad connected the east and west coasts it was clear who owned America: the rapacious businessmen who hired Pilkington detectives to violently put down any thoughts workers might have had about fair treatment. And once smart lawyers in the late nineteenth century were able to contend that corporations had the same rights as humans and get the courts to agree, the door was open to complete control of American society by bankers, corporations and opportunists. The final battles for democracy were fought and lost in the late 1800s. And once the Federal Reserve (neither federal nor having any reserves) was established under subterfuge in 1913, corporations controlled the money as well as the economy and the politics, and could do more or less as they pleased.

    Despite all the hype about the Civil War, slavery remained legal until 1942 -just operating under a different set of rules, the vagrancy laws. Better to get the Negros into the catering sections of the military. But don’t give them guns.

    It suits the controllers to maintain the myth that America is a democracy, and that people’s votes count; that way the mases can be persuaded to manufacture consent for the banks, corporations and opportunists to carry on looting, polluting and exploiting the populace. And engage in resource wars under the banner of delivering ‘freedom and democracy’.

    There is as much democracy in the US as there is in China -a one party state; Republicans and Democrats are just two sides of the same coin, and take turns at exploiting and misleading the American populace.

    How else could a self-serving liar, exploiter and absolute clown like Trump have got to the White House? other than whoever tells the biggest porkies and has the biggest ‘war chest’ (acquired by exploiting the masses) to buy votes wins.

    Anyone who thinks things might be better under ‘I don’t remember raping any women’ [because I’m semi-senile] Biden is deluded. And “Please don’t mention Ukraine and the fracking business we were hoping to establish there.”

    • I’d like to be able to comment without making silly errors.

      taken THERE by opportunists to work the land on behalf of wealthy people

    • It would probably be more correct as a first sentence to say that the USA has never been really religious. The democracy thing came later. The early settlers fled disharmony and seizure and wastage of their assets by whoever reigned in Britain. And then tended to fall into disharmony amongst themselves, with many quickly finding their way to building their own personal assets paying lip service to their chosen religion. Today’s prosperity churches are an overt outcome of this continuing approach. The Constitution was the same attempt to impose order and law on the lawless and domination by the strongest, as we saw here when Maori signed up for Britain to take responsibility here for the behaviour of their unruly people.

      • There’s this soulless box that everyone is talking around because they’re scared riots might tear there community apart. That box is coming from a long long way away, from Africa and 300 years later Black Lives Matter protesters are being asked “what does smashing up businesses over here” have to do with “George Floyd being public ally lynched over there?”

        That’s the confusion over flowing out of Pandora’s box because no one can comprehend why the death of a black man in America has anything to do with anything in New Zealand because for law and order to be reestablished the narrative has to be manufactured to lie in order to silence the majority.

        What does anyone think black people are being told? Literally black people are being told they are not worth it. People who want peaceful protest, want to ironically hate racism so that no one knows which race is real and which race is racist. What happened to George that day is he locked eyes with everyone and asked what kind of person do you want him to be? and one response is to saturate the nation in teargas and ignore the entire conversation which is an Ancient Greek level of tragedy playing out in front of our wifi.

        So we are urged to make non-choices about civil rights which is the most cowardly part of it all because we get no answer but at the core of it it’s either Racism or not. People just don’t care what’s in the box so they don’t have to learn about the concept of racism and they want black people to be the whitest versions of black people possible. The truth is democracy is not good and it’s exactly like the way Germany became Nazi Germany. I know there’s a lot of theories about democracy being to close to corporate power but these too things can conflict with each other but now there are private business interests trying to reshuffle the cards so that people go oh! We aren’t racist after all, back to work! No more riots, Karen can carry on being hyper vigilant.

        But obviously the barkies are bad narrative is being manufactured to throw the darkies back under the bus. With in the box is the lie that everyone says to each other so they don’t have to take responsibility for the matter. It’s the most non-choice anyone can make because the real choice to make is that one day people will have to choose between whites and blacks, and democracies real responsibility is to the founding fathers who created the capitalist system.

      • The reason I commenced with the faux democracy aspect is because of Chris wrote this:’The Fragile Promise Of American Democracy.

        The full exposure of the phony nature of religion came later, though many of those thrown out of England (and Holland) or who chose to leave were religious dissenters who saw through the religious inconsistencies and control systems of the times.

  2. “Certainly the number of Americans willing to affirm the equality of whites and blacks in the 1850s would have been vanishingly small.”

    If one could conduct a poll guaranteeing an honest response, what would modern white Americans say, based on what they’re witnessing at the moment?

    But yes you’re right – this problem is entirely a Democrat problem and I suspect it will cost them in the election.

    Loving your satire: “the idealistic journalists and presenters of CNN” It had me rolling on the floor!

    • There is a strong desire for peaceful protest and all the police has to do is expose that ideology to violence with the express permission of the wealthy few. Reality my dear boy is how much punishment can you take before the other side admits defeat?

  3. Woodrow Wilson was the president during the Red Summer of 1919. The parallels to today are rather striking, but there are differences too (I have been reading up on it a bit after a Guardian article the other day).

    A major cause seems to the Wilson’s inept management of demobilisation after WWI. In particular; Black soldiers, having learnt that they were are as capable of killing and dying as anyone else, were no longer content to be spat-on in the streets (figuratively and literally). This one quote from a McWhirter interview (whose book on those times is frequently cited, but I have not yet read), seems to neatly sum up the preconditions for racial violence:

    “Many unions were prejudiced against letting in black people.”

    • Wein NZ went through a stage of having some strong unions that were ‘closed’ to anyone but family members. It seems there is a default position in humans, once a group has what it wants probably after arguing fairness and the rights of man, they then close the portcullis, and repel all boarders – unless they have the proper password and handshake. A bad habit which we need to review and change to a better habit.

      • When humans get the upper hand on other humans or the rest of society they use it to their own advantage and pull the ladder up after themselves. fairness is only an obsession when it is ones self that is being treated unfairly. When one is at an advantage of the unfairness it is not so troubling .
        D J S

        • Oh dear DJS I don’t think you know how my sort of comment works. I write up all my fears, and then someone comes along and proves me wrong. You and I seem to be on the same page. I hope we can rewrite some important part. In legal documents one word can make all the trouble in the world, or the opposite.

  4. Fragile appears in the title of this post and also describes a Gnat unflatteringly in its neighbouring headline.
    Fragile came to mind and I digress on this theme. Sterile was the word not fragile, but still the essence of the discourse ends up the same.

    “This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

    What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

    How Hair the Musical dealt with the above in a 2009 remake – a piece of theatre written for today!

  5. The only quibble I’d have with this analysis is that the USA obviously has a much deeper and more dangerous well of reaction than most modern European social democracies, their recent anti-immigrant politics notwithstanding. To generalise from the USA to the rest of the world is always a risk. You’d have to go back to the Babylon Berlin era to see actually armed far-right protesters on the streets of German cities, for example. The Americans have always claimed to be an exceptional nation and actually, I think they’re right. But not in any good way, these days.

  6. Reactionaries, conservatives, authoritarians and right wingers generally, prefer muttering into their beverages, or troll accounts, out of direct public view. Whatever actual action they might undertake–the nasty stuff–they hope not to be observed doing let alone called out for or caught!

    They have are emboldened though recently with the ultimate enabler in Trump. Hence armed “open carriers” protesting at state legislatures without sanction. No cop seems to have kneed one of the camo wearing incels in the neck for nine minutes. A friendly wave more like.

    In the USA they have existed long before Bush or Trump as Chris points out. In the current setting Trump never stopped campaigning with his rallies and merch selling after the 2016 campaign. He has millions of supporters. An iceberg of support, but things hopefully have changed with C19 unemployment and the Republicans not delivering practical assistance for the American people. Can the democrats even at this late stage turn leftward without Bernie?–doubtful, but if they don’t America will be a full on failed state.

  7. Yes, and we have the absurdity of Trump claiming that he has done more for black people than any president since Abraham Lincoln!
    Trump wouldn’t be worthy to even gather the crumbs under Abraham Lincoln’s table – to paraphrase a Christian prayer.
    Have Americans worked out by now that they elected a nut job to the top office?

    • America had the choice between ‘a nut job’ who had not previously been a politician and an even worse political insider … they were sick of Politicians

      • 100% Doug.

        In a democracy you only get to choice the ‘least worse’ candidate, not the ideal one.

        What’s more the situation hasn’t changed much. This year’s election will come down to a choice between the highly flawed but honest Donald Trump or the lifelong swamp creature/corrupt/ever more bewildered Joe Biden.

        If I was an American my choice would once again be Trump. You know he’s trying to do the right thing when the gains the ire of the rich and powerful, including those who control the media over there.

  8. This 270 years of increasing comfort is a mere nowt in the years. Let’s talk about the industrial revolution rather than more recent individual faults. Let’s talk about the main matters — the industrial revolution and empire and the 10 years to do our best for the species, which, fkn, includes our old age, let alone the massacre of our children and grandchildren.

  9. It seems Kiwis love to project their crimes and moral failures onto Americans. It just goes on and on in a mad circle. – “thou dost protest too much”…. If New Zealanders really stood against overzealous cops or the militarization of the police force, the first thing they would do is demand that Kiwi troops get out of Afghanistan! What did those people ever do to you? If it is okay for your troops to march around there- you know what? It is fine for them to patrol here – all for your protection of course.

    • You don’t seem to like us Angie. And show as much political understanding as a snail. When lockdown is finished you will be able to return home to a less confused country than ours. We certainly don’t know whether we should be greeting the USA or the Chinese.

  10. The USA has never been a ‘democracy’ as it was established as a Constitutional Republic.
    The ‘democracy’ part is the use of popular voting at many State levels to appoint representatives.
    The election of the President is done by the Electoral College system carefully designed to limit the powers of the larger (more populous) States and NOT by popular vote.

  11. No one commented on my report of reality in our 1939. Cos it’s 10 years long for 90 % mortality of the species rather than Covid 19’s immediate 1 %. I won’t be laughing in 10 years.

    And none of the Leftists disagree with me. But they carry on eating their own shit. ‘Cos they are trained/ instincted to it. Short-term bullshit.


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