30 January 2009

Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose is the fairest democracy of all?

Just before President Obama’s inaugural address, Clark Judge, a former Reagan speechwriter, posted an interesting piece anticipating the speech on the Podium Pundits blog (here), which included the line: “Inaugural addresses invariably remind us of America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty…”

This prompted me to post a note here saying that I hoped President Obama would not follow this tendency of Americans to overstate the case for their country being the first, finest or only example of freedom and democracy in the world (which, in fact, he did not do in his speech).

Mr. Judge took issue with what I’d said (here), but I remain unconvinced, as can be seen here.

You can follow where the debate has got to by by following the above links or by reading on.

Clark S. Judge (WHWG)

Last week, a distinguished British blogger took issue with a January 19th posting in which I said that, “Inaugural addresses invariably remind us of America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty…” I’d like to respond.

The blogger was Max Atkinson and his challenge is here. As he wrote: 'My point is not to criticize the particular form of democracy and freedom that’s been developed in the USA. Nor is it to claim that we in the UK (or any other European country) have a come up with an even better version of democracy. But it is to register a complaint about this implicit criticism of other countries’ democracy and freedom that’s so regularly trotted out by American politicians.'

By way of background, Atkinson is a former Oxford professor of anthropology. In the 1980s he became interested in how audiences respond to speakers. He focused first on analyzing structures of language that trigger applause. This interest led him ultimately to leaving academia and becoming a highly successful consultant on public presentation. His clients are political and corporate leaders, primarily in the UK and Europe. He has written two excellent books on speechwriting and presentation development, most recently Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need To Know About Speeches And Presentations (published in the US by Oxford University Press, 2005).

Saying we in America have an historically unmatched commitment to the combination of popular sovereignty and individual liberty is no more than stating a simple fact. Switzerland is occasionally cited as an example of earlier popular rule, but Switzerland of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (before the Napoleonic occupation) was an authoritarian realm under patrician families — nothing like the U.S. from the hour of its independence.

It is true that Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 established the standards for law and liberty that became the foundation of the American experiment. Our revolutionary generation considered themselves (correctly) heirs to and perfectors of the British achievement. Part of that perfecting was introducing rule by the people to a degree the British would not come close to equaling for decades.

Atkinson criticizes Ronald Reagan for saying, in his Time for Choosing speech of 1964, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.” He might as well have taken on Abraham Lincoln, who, in his 1838 Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum speech, observed that the US “for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world” and who, in his 1862 Annual Message to Congress, termed the American nation, “the last best hope of earth.” Lincoln knew — and the world of his time knew — that something unprecedented and as yet unmatched had happened here.

Many countries have followed since, including, of course, the UK. But when Reagan spoke in 1964, the mix of individual freedom and popular sovereignty was still far from framing the world’s standard. It was the middle of the Cold War, and it was no exaggeration to assert that, given the geopolitics of that era, if America were to fall, all other centers of freedom and popular rule would follow us down, just as they had followed us up.

Directly put: The modern move of nations to personal liberty in the context of popular sovereignty originates in the United States — and, even with the beating our global image arguably took in recent years, America remains a internationally animating example of that ideal to a degree that no other country equals. As part of the task of “maintaining the vigor of our national life and the constancy of our national purpose” — a task that, as I said, is among the functions of each inaugural (and that President Obama in his inaugural fulfilled admirably) — it is legitimate, appropriate and even essential to return to this truth. It is not chauvinism. It is in no way a dismissal of other democracies. It is simply right.

Max Atkinson, Guest Contributor

The point I was making that Clark Judge has responded to was not that the UK had a better or older version of democracy than the USA, but that American claims to democratic superiority come across as a bit tactless to some of its closest allies.

His suggestion that it is no more than stating a simple fact to say that America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty had been there ‘from the hour of its independence’, still strikes me as overstating the case. After all, the commitment to individual liberty did not apply to slaves, and voting rights after independence were restricted to white male adult property owners – nor were they extended beyond that until about 1850, after which voters still had to be white and male. There then remained the de facto denial of African American voting rights in most southern states until as recently as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A year before that, Ronald Reagan had described the USA as the last stand on earth for freedom and liberty. And, although Clark may be right in saying that other free countries might have followed if the US had fallen, that was not the point I heard Mr Reagan to be making – unless George Bernard Shaw was right about Britain and the United States being ‘nations separated by a common language’ and we really do hear things differently.

His assertion that ‘the modern move of nations to personal liberty in the context of popular sovereignty originates in the United States’ is also debatable. For one thing, similar moves were already underway in various European countries at the time of the American revolution, though admittedly progress here was a good deal messier (e.g. the French revolution) or slower (e.g. Britain) than in the USA. For another, it was the same intellectual force, the Enlightenment, that was driving change on both sides of the Atlantic. The American founding fathers may have made a cleaner and quicker job of it, but they did have the advantage of being in a new world with a blank slate to write on, unencumbered by trying to accommodate the new ideals within established, evolving and ancient forms of government.

The idea that America remains an internationally animating example of the ideal of popular sovereignty rests easily enough on foreign ears – until hyperbole strikes again with the addition of ‘to a degree that no other country equals’. On reading that, other famous words of Ronald Reagan sprang to mind: “There you go again!”

But I stress again that I have no interest in asserting the superiority of the UK brand of democracy and liberty. There have been too many missed opportunities and dubious imperialistic adventures for us to be smug about our past or complacent about our present. And there’s still unfinished business and more work to be done. To take but one example, the Blair government finally got around to abolishing the hereditary principle as a basis for membership of the House of Lords, but has left us with entry qualifications to the upper house that are as far removed from any democratic principles as could be imagined (as you can see by looking here).

This willingness to find fault in British constitutional arrangements is not a preface to withdrawing my original complaint, but a reminder of the dangers of complacency: to compare democracies and/or to assert the superiority of one over another is to enter difficult and delicate territory, for the obvious reason that there are no universally established or objective principles of what counts as ‘pure’ democracy and liberty. In the absence of any such measuring device, it is surely healthier for people committed to these ideals to admit that there may still be room for improving the way their own country puts them into practice than it is to believe that one or other of us has already reached perfection, or the most perfect version that any nation can ever hope to achieve.

If I were an American, I know that I would definitely not be arguing for a 28th constitutional amendment that would prohibit any further amendments. But, as an Englishman, I’m far too polite to start pointing out possible flaws in the US constitution that could perhaps be changed for the better.

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