For obvious reasons, we are under the impression that American democracy is failing. This is not precisely true. American democracy is working exactly as designed. What is failing is our centralized system of top-down governance over a large and diverse territory. American-style democracy is humming along just fine; it’s our country that is cracking apart. In the process it is revealing quite a lot that we’ve never had to openly face about our country. When the cracks are gaping this wide you can see right down to the rot at the bottom of the mire. And one of the first things you can see in that muck is that American democracy has almost nothing to do with actual democracy — not even an aspiration of democratic governance.
This is not a democracy.
There are many dissembling words in the foundational documents of our country. You can’t just take the language of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison and reinterpret it with all our modern sensibilities and expect the resulting ideas to be practically applicable. And we haven’t all agreed to change the original meaning of phrases like “all men are created equal” (written by a slave owner) or “we the people of the United States” (written by a man who also wrote that “[a] rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” were all “improper” and “wicked” projects to be guarded against at all costs). Those in power do not wish to change the meanings, nor even drop the historical baggage. The ruling class in this country is quite satisfied with the original intent of words like “men” and “we”. And “democracy”.
This is not democracy.
It is not even a rule of white men. There was a such a sizable number of men in that Constitutional Convention who believed that the vote should be restricted to property owners — by default, white and male, but still… — they couldn’t even agree to put voting rights into the original document. They left election rules up to individual states. However, they unanimously agreed that property rights were paramount.
This is not democracy.
The United States government was specifically created to protect property rights and exclude all those Others who might interfere with property rights or who might be themselves considered property. Even our individual rights — that theoretically lovely Bill of Rights — are defined in terms of property. This is not a system that will work to the benefit of a large number of people who do not own property, who no longer consent to be a white man’s property, and who do not wish to be ruled by people who arrogate our very lives and subsume all our needs into their right to accumulate wealth.
This is not a democracy.
We often pretend that the Constitution is somewhat like received wisdom. That it, like the Bible, was handed down from some spirit representing the best of our ideals, untainted by the hand and mind of the medium. This is even less true of the Constitution than it is of the Bible where at least time and many differing hands molded the biblical words we read today. The US Constitution was written by one young man (James Madison, aged 36, still seven years shy of being mature enough to marry Dolley) and ratified by fifty-some other men, many of them just as young (don’t let the powdered wigs fool you, average age was 42 and that average was pulled older by an 81-year-old Ben Franklin — who was so frail he had to be wheeled into the proceedings on a sedan chair). Many of them were very wealthy, all of them were property owners, and all of them were white (duh). They were all engaged in enriching themselves by stealing the homelands of the Native Americans and stealing the labor of any body they could coerce, particularly Black people, of course. Many of them were slave owners. None of them believed in equal rights for women. Few of them believed that non-male and non-white peoples were even humans with interiority, consciousness, rationality, or even the ability to feel pain. (Witness the 3/5ths Compromise.)
These few young white men crafted an idea that would sanction (definition: “make holy”) all the bloodshed and misery they were enacting upon these lands and peoples. They were busily creating divine right and royal prerogative for themselves and those they allowed into their class. Thus they made a body of law that would enable them to continue their program of wealth accumulation. They built a governing system that would make public morals out of their own very private wants. This is not a demographic that you’d trust to plan a nice, tranquil dinner party, never mind drafting up the document that would serve as binding law for hundreds of years.
And as a result this is not democracy.
It is and always was an oligarchy. White men without property were finally admitted into the ranks of citizenship (“we the people”) only with Andrew Jackson who, as a former military man (translate: terrorist and pirate), realized that white male property owners were not sufficiently numerous to keep all other populations in check (translate: enslaved or dead). So it was decided that poor white men would be thrown a meatless bone in order to use their desperation and violence to support the aims of the propertied class. This served to divide poor white men from their poor neighbors and families, ensuring that these men would break up any unified opposition to the propertied class. There was never an intent to allow them to rule directly, not even under Jackson and other nominally populist rulers. And there was a specific antipathy toward allowing any other group to make and uphold laws. Even wealthy white women were excluded — their own wives and mothers, sisters and daughters — because these women were too notably concerned about the general welfare to be trusted with governance.
(Note that there has been no change to any of this in the intervening 200 years. Pretty sure there is even a 19th century analog to Antler Boy, pictured above… else wherefore the various horned hats among the costumery of men’s civic clubs?)
This is not democracy.
This is the rule of property. And as such it is functioning exactly as designed. Maybe even more effectively than some of the founders intended. Alexander Hamilton would be so very pleased.
However, he would not countenance the breakdown of this order, so maybe he’s better dead and buried. For our sake as much as his. Because the breakdown of this order is not a bad thing — except for those of the propertied class. For all the rest of us, we might be seeing ahead to a time when our voices are heard, our needs are met, our lives are supported and celebrated. We might be seeing real democracy. True participatory governance with no electoral vote whatsoever. Well, perhaps we might vote to elect representation to international councils and trade organizations, if those exist. But otherwise we will be ruling ourselves deliberately and directly.
Graeber and Wengrow have exhaustively reported what anthropology and archeology have been seeing for decades: humans have lived without centralized rule for most of our existence. Even kings and warlords have actually exercised much less control over the daily lives of those they nominally ruled than we have believed (because they did tell such heroic stories in poetry… and stone). And the dirty secret revealed in a closer scrutiny of our actual past is that we live better lives when we are freed of these propertied parasites. There is abundance, creativity, innovation, playfulness, care and welfare for all when there is no ruling class expropriating everything. (Well, duh!)
The breakdown of the United States is not a thing to mourn. In our brief existence, we’ve caused far more harm than good for the world and for ourselves. We never were much of a country to begin with. We are not “the people”. This country is not “ours” for the majority of the folks who live here. And it can’t be.
This is not democracy.
Even if we were to somehow square true participatory democracy with this vast scale, the scale itself makes the centralized rule of property rights impossible. One thing to notice about the foundational documents is that they were written to apply to a very small territory. Not quite just the original thirteen colonies, but pretty close. This is a land that is broadly similar in geography and climate and its ability to support human settlement. Furthermore, it is a land of obvious divisions. A place where rivers and hills create boundaries. Excellent topography for defining mine and yours. Settlement patterns have almost always been very like the villages and homesteads of northwest Europe — with perhaps a bit more seasonal migration before the white guys showed up with their measuring chains — because the biophysical territory is the same as northwest Europe, right down to underlying geology (accidentally sundered by the upstart Atlantic Ocean).
However, the original thirteen places are not representative of the entire country. The founders likely couldn’t even conceive how different things were out there. They’d never been there, never knew anyone who had lived there. Turns out that property rules that work for New England and the Mid Atlantic states do not work in, for example, New Mexico and California. They are not merely unfair like much of the rest of property rules; they don’t work at all. Take just one example: you can’t remove water from a river and expect it to be replenished for the needs of those downstream of you in California, where there is only one source of water — the mountain headwaters. This is but one of the essential differences that have played havoc with property ownership in the Western states… since white guys showed up with their measuring chains. And it is but one of many impediments to a centralized and uniformly codified rule over such a very large and diverse territory.
But centralized rule is never intended to benefit those who are being ruled. It is not democracy. It is not a rule of and by people. In our un-country, centralized rule is by and for property. The American demos is property. It is wealth. Specifically monetary wealth.
And, happily, that is the biggest crack in this failing non-democracy.
You see, in this era of fracturing we are learning that we must agree to this rule. We must agree to be ruled. The ruling class is utterly dependent upon us. All they have is money and paper deeds. If we take our services and productivity and care away from them, if we refuse to be paid to meet their needs, then they have nothing. They can’t even feed themselves. If we keep our lives to ourselves and stop supporting them, all the money in Switzerland could not save them from downfall.
This is not an unusual tale in history. So they must be aware of their fragile reign and how it is likely to end. Or perhaps that fear is buried in their subconscious, percolating up and out and upending all their rational decisions. Else wherefore this drive to keep a system going that will kill their own children? Possibly immiserate and kill even themselves in their doddering years. (Well, many of these white guys don’t want to admit that they’ll have doddering years and, in the event, would rather die anyway… but still…)
They are particularly shrill in claiming that this travesty of a country is a democracy. They tell us many lies, but this one is vehement precisely because this lie sanctions their rule. This lie claims that it is the will of the people propping up this mess. It is our fault. We support all this. And in a way, that’s true (even when we can point to the many “checks and balances” in place to shield rule from the will of the people). It’s true that we support this system and this lie, not because we have made a choice based on our needs and desires, but because we simply can’t exist in this system without participating in this charade that those in power name “democracy”. And thus far it’s been devilishly difficult to live in this land without being in this system. Many who tried that route were exterminated.
Many, but not all… and in those few we can see what real democracy might look like.
This is not it. But as it fails, we might get to put real democracy in its place.
This is not a democracy. But it may be… soon… if we just acknowledge that it is not democracy. And start working toward making something that is.
There was a comment on one of the other places that posted this essay that I hinted at alternatives to American “democracy” and did not describe them. This is partly because on this website, the first “related post” below is a link to just such an alternative. But it is also because I’m not an expert on many of the others that exist in this country, having never lived in them and participated in them.
Still, Resilience is hosting this wonderful series on deliberative democracy. So if you want to learn more on alternative democracy, read on!
Here is the most recent post in the series. It is strangely difficult to get to previous posts in this series, and there is no series masthead page to link to all of them. But this last, post number 9, is linked to two previous posts that make up a fairly good handbook on the deliberative process.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022