Elizabeth Morgan | US democracy: a delusion?
“ Thou shalt not lie” from The Ten Commandments
“… the truth will set you free” John 8:32
“Speak the truth and speak it ever, cost you what it will …” Memory Gem
Like many people, last Wednesday, January 6, I watched on television the assault on the US Capitol. In another life, I lived in the US for a few years and wondered about the American concept of democracy and freedom (liberty) from my experiences and observations. I actually had admired the US political system, the fact that one could openly state allegiance to a particular political party and that there were checks and balances. I had limited knowledge of US history as there was little focus on it in our school curriculum.
This week, the issue on my mind is democracy in the USA, considering that it is our major trading partner; a significant development partner; exerts tremendous influence in this hemisphere as a principal world power, and is home to over two million people of Caribbean origin.
The USA promotes itself as the leader of the free world, the beacon of democracy, the shining light on a hill that sets the example for all the rest of us to follow. There are many times in Caribbean history, including quite recently, when the USA has intervened to steer us on the right path to democracy and freedom. The 1959 revolution in Cuba still sees that country’s government designated as anti-democratic and subject to sanctions.
Becoming more knowledgeable of US history, I now understand that its democracy has blemishes. When President-elect Joe Biden and others speak of violence in the USA, including Wednesday’s insurgence, and say ‘that’s not who we are’, the reality is, this is exactly who some Americans were and continue to be without much accountability.
A LOOK AT HISTORY
In 1776, the USA ended its colonial relationship with Britain as the outcome of a revolutionary war. The US, as a nation, gained its freedom but thousands of enslaved people from Africa were not given theirs, even though many fought in the revolutionary war with General George Washington and the Continental Army. There was independence without emancipation. All men were not created equal.
The US parliament building, the Capitol, seat of democracy, was built between 1795 and 1800, largely by enslaved black people. So, on Wednesday, when one of the insurgents said of the Capitol, ‘we built it’, this was a false claim. The USA remained a nation embracing democratic principles for some, while others remained enslaved and considered stock as endorsed by the Supreme Court.
It took a long and bloody civil war, from 1861-1865, for the enslaved population of nearly 4 million to be emancipated. A civil war was declared as the Southern slave holding states revolted, seceding from the Union to establish their own Confederate State in order to retain slavery, considered critical to their economy. Note, slavery had been abolished in the British West Indies in 1834-38. President Abraham Lincoln paid the ultimate price at the end of the Civil War. He was assassinated by a Confederate supporter, John Wilks Booth.
From 1868-1877, under President Ulysses S. Grant, in the period known as ‘Reconstruction’, an attempt was made to convert the USA into a more genuinely democratic nation. Black people were made citizens and black men gained the right to vote. Recall that women could not vote and Native Americans, Asian (Chinese), Catholics and Jews were also struggling to be integrated into the US democratic process.
By 1877, there was a backlash in white America, especially in the Southern states, against political and economic progress being made by black Americans. The Supreme Court facilitated reversing rights gained by blacks, including to vote. Terrorism, perpetrated by the Klu Klux Klan and other such groups, ensured that black/coloured Americans lived in fear and were subordinate to white Americans.
Through legislation and practice, a system of segregation (Jim Crow), claiming separate but equal, was introduced. In 1896, segregation was endorsed by the US Supreme Court. In World War II, while the USA fought for world freedom and democracy, it had a segregated army. Segregation was the equivalent of apartheid in South Africa and would continue into the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was at its zenith.
As human rights were being addressed in the newly created United Nations, US civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, presented a petition on human rights violations against black Americans. The US government ensured that violations in the US were not open to UN scrutiny. In any case, which developing countries would have been brave enough to challenge the US on this domestic issue?
From the activism of the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act was adopted in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These pieces of legislation brought black Americans into the US democratic process.
When the 1960s ended, President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Democracy in the USA has remained a work in progress despite the election of an African-American president in 2008. In the last four years, under the incumbent administration, the fissures in the US governance system have been starkly highlighted, in the electoral process, press freedom, and in emasculating institutions. Weaknesses in the system of checks and balances have been exposed. “Alternative facts” have been mainstreamed.
So, on January 6, a predominantly white mob invaded the seat of democracy, the Capitol, while Congress was in joint session, and threatened to topple the government and the democratic process – the light on the hill, already a little unstable and dull, flickered, but fortunately did not go out.
For me, the US would indeed benefit from an examination of conscience facing the truth about its democracy, as it seeks reconciliation and to reform, and if it wants to meet with other world leaders to talk about democracy. The world witnessed the last four years and, on January 6, the home-grown day of infamy.
Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org