The United States and the Trajectory of Democracy
Almost 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville published De la démocratie en Amérique, putting the intellectual seal of approval on the idea of US-style democracy as a model for other parts of the world. Tocqueville’s analysis went far beyond formal institutions and laws to the normative underpinnings of participation, equality, and voluntary association. Arguably, it is these norms which, in spite of the numerous evils in American history – from slavery and the destruction of the indigenous population to plutocracy, support for foreign dictators, and the tyranny of the majority mentioned by Tocqueville himself – served as a cynosure for people and countries around the world.
The normative power of US democracy was that it was an ideal which, somehow, had been concretised. That this had occurred in the situation of what Louis Hartz called a “new society”, one without an hereditary aristocracy, with vast fertile lands only thinly settled by peoples who could easily be swept aside, and with oceans and distracted great powers protecting it from invasion, was mostly elided by those who drew inspiration from the democratic norms they saw flourishing in the United States. Indeed, even the most scathing political critics of the US found themselves having at least to quote, perhaps to finesse, or, horrors, to adopt outright, features of what they imagined to be American democracy. From attempts at extending the franchise through to legislation modeled on the Freedom of Information Act, US democratic norms continued to serve as a model.
At first, this influence stemmed from the obvious contrast between the US experience and that of Europe. In the 20th century, other factors were added: economic and military power, language, universities, popular culture, and the sheer omnipresence of the mass media. These in turn led to a sort of path dependence, in which elites in other countries acquired the habit of looking to the United States for ideas about participation and transparency, not to mention the details of certain types of legislation, administrative arrangements within organisations, the setting up of advisory bodies, and, of course, many other facets of US society unrelated to democratic norms. The fact that many of those elites in other countries had themselves been educated in the United States, understood English, and had grown up consuming US popular culture, further reinforced this habit. Thus, even if many US political ideas, such as its 18th-century constitution or its insistence on first-past-the-post voting rules, were no longer imitated, the habit of looking to the United States, perhaps copying certain of its practices, but in any case using those practices as an argument for certain policies, remained alive and well. Not even the presidency of George W. Bush, with its hanging chads, invasion of Iraq, and heartbreaking incompetence on Hurricane Katrina, could stamp out that habit: numerous US expatriates can attest to being congratulated by complete strangers after the election of Barack Obama in 2009.
“The United States was a democratic inspiration also because of its protest movements.”
One would like to imagine that this changed after Trump assumed the presidency in 2017. To some degree it did, as elites lowered their expectations for US policy and focused instead on short-term coordination with their American counterparts. But this is to ignore the enormous boost that Trump’s talking points, and the aides he appointed, gave to xenophobic and authoritarian forces around the world. It is no accident that European advocates of immigration restrictions and crackdowns on the press, the judiciary, and dissenting voices lauded Trump, even before election night; by the same token, there is clear mutual admiration between Trump and various autocratic leaders. In effect, the United States is still a model, albeit an antidemocratic one.
This, however, is not the end of the story, or even of the current episode. We would do well to recall that the United States was a democratic inspiration not only, or even primarily, because of its constitution, its relatively broad electorate, its legislative arrangements, or its free press, but also because of its protest movements. The story of Gandhi being inspired by Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is well-known, but this is only the tip of the American iceberg. For example, trade union struggles (which resulted, among other things, in the choice of 1 May as International Workers’ Day), antiwar protests, and the multiple strands of protests for civil rights (most famously the Civil Rights Movement against racial injustices) each had a marked influence on analogous activities in numerous countries. The point is not that protest movements in the United States served as models elsewhere: some did, but in other cases, influence ran in the other direction. Rather, the fact that protests did occur in the United States, in the face of well-known antidemocratic barriers, was itself significant to activists in other countries. As one South African campaigner put it, “When the sit-ins started in the USA, I felt I was there. We read the news eagerly and identified unconditionally with those who were demanding their basic rights.”
Thus, the jury is still out on whether or not the United States, under Trump, will become an antidemocratic model. In the end, what matters is not so much what Trump does as what his fellow citizens do in response.
Professor of International Relations/Political Science
This article was published in Globe, the Graduate Institute Review