How democratic is the United States?

The United States portrays itself as a beacon of democratic purity, a forward-thinking model of perfection to be mimicked and, if necessary, exported around the world. This has become so engrained in western culture that we no longer think to question its legitimacy. There is just one problem: American democracy is far from perfect.

Simon Schama, the popular historian, recently tweeted his view:

This is certainly one of the more densely packed 140 characters you’re likely to see, but Schama’s point is a good one. After the wars of independence, the newly formed United States was the antithesis of everything British. It was a republic, it was secular and it detested colonialism. Their democracy was the envy of the world and the US Constitution is undoubtedly one of the most important documents ever written.

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The Supreme Court

The Constitution outlines the national framework of government and, above all else, defends the individual freedoms of the American people. In practice, however, it is not so clear cut as the power of interpretation is granted to the Supreme Court. This is necessary with a constantly changing political landscape but it has also allowed the current political establishment to veer from the original intentions of the Founding Fathers.

The 2010 US Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case effectively means that corporations are treated as people by US law. It lifted all restrictions on donations to political parties and fundamentally left the balance of power with the rich. This is what Schama means by ‘democracy of the chequebook’: Washington is rife with lobby groups acting on behalf of corporations, side-lining the politics of the people. In any democracy there will be conspiracy theories but the potential for corporate gain taking priority over the public’s interest is greater in the United States than in any other western democracy.

The ‘Move to Amend’ campaign rejects the Citizens United ruling. Their aim is to establish that: “money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.” This debate raises serious doubts over the legitimacy of American democracy. It leads you to wonder whether political power can be bought and if the political agenda can be changed by those with a bigger chequebook. It is a frightening thought that a country with such diplomatic and military power could have such fragile democratic foundations.

Barack Obama Michell Obama inauguration ceremony
President Obama during his inauguration ceremony

The Founding Fathers separated church and state powers and thereby established a truly secular system. Again, in contrast to their British counterparts. In Britain, the Queen is head of state and head of the church meaning that, constitutionally speaking, the two institutions are intimately linked. Yet, in practice, they are not. Even the most adamant British atheist would agree that religion plays a much smaller role in our political system than in the United States. It is an irony of modern times that, despite the enshrined separation of church and state power in US politics, religion is of the utmost importance.

There is only one openly atheist member of the United States Congress. Considering the combined total of the Senate and the House of Representatives surpasses 500, this is almost a statistical impossibility. The truth is simple: a declared atheist stands little chance of election in the US. Even the Presidents declare ‘so help me God’ during their inauguration ceremonies. Religion is everywhere. Thomas Jefferson, the revolutionary hero, would be appalled at the authority of the Church in modern day America. Another irony, Jefferson, the man who placed such importance on a secular society, is a hero of the tea-party movement, a group with the religious right at its very core.

filepicker-GxgiR53AQdSux1El9YNJ_132nra-949x1024.jpgThe oligarchy that Schama refers to is thus the American political establishment. It is a group balancing the interests of powerful corporations, the religious right and, if they have time, their people. Often you are gripped with the impression that President Obama has his hands tied due to the strength of big-business and powerful lobby groups. Just look how hard the Democrats had to fight for their healthcare reform bill and, even then, the final bill was an extremely watered-down version of the original plan. More upsetting is the impossibility of bringing reform to US gun laws. Despite the heart-breaking and frequent stories of school shootings, the NRA gun lobby is far too powerful for anything to be changed. In a nutshell, American politics is a mess.

Schama’s comparison of today’s America with eighteenth century Britain no longer seems so absurd. The enshrined values of the Constitution could be mirrored the world over. However, the problem with the current US political system is the difference between theory and practice. In this case, theory is perfection, practice is far from it.

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