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.

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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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Is the British relationship with the United States really so “special”?

In Britain today, we are constantly reminded of the special relationship that unites politicians in London and Washington. Yet, on wider consideration, it appears to be an exaggerated myth put together by British diplomats rather than a fully-fledged transatlantic alliance. This is particularly apparent when we consider that the special relationship is relatively unheard of on the other side of the Atlantic.

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The history of the two nations is dominated far more by volatile rivalry than the sentimental “shoulder to shoulder” alliance we are told to believe in today. The original thirteen colonies on today’s eastern seaboard declared independence from the British Empire in 1776 and years of bitter conflict between Britain and the newly formed United States followed. Many would argue, particularly in Britain, that this is ancient history. However, the legacy of rivalry with the British as their former colonial rulers endures even today in the United States as it is taught in schools. The national anthem of the United States, The Star-Spangled Banner, describes a British bombardment of Baltimore in 1813 and a lesser known verse actually uses the words “their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

The Second World War is arguably a shining light in the history of the special relationship as the Allies eventually overcame the might of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. However, American suspicion of British attempts to gain assistance in the fight against fascism tells a different story. The America First movement, supported by future presidents John F Kennedy and Gerald Ford, was immensely popular and claimed that European Wars were none of their concern. After Blitzkrieg had obliterated Western Europe, Britain was left alone in the fight against Hitler. Yet, desperate requests for support were met by cold indifference from Britain’s North Atlantic ally. What followed was the transfer of the British Empire’s entire life savings to North America in a series of secret and desperate convoys. The British gave away state secrets, scientific innovation and, of course, vast sums of money to entice the reluctant Americans into fighting fascism. Churchill raged privately that Roosevelt was acting like a bailiff seizing the goods of a bankrupt, made worse by the fact that this was a time of war. By 1940 prices, estimates suggest that £500,000,000 went to the USA prior to 1942 (an immense sum when we consider inflation) and the exchange completely changed the balance of global wealth and authority, making the United States a superpower in the process. In many respects the United States crippled the British economy in exchange for military support and even then, in December 1941 it was Hitler who declared war on the United States, not the other way round.

After the war, this unsentimentality continued as Britain was shut out of the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, a conference that has shaped the global economic system as we know it. Britain’s representative was legendary economist John Maynard Keynes and it is staggering that a man of that stature and intellect had no say in the rebuilding of the post-war global economy. During the Suez crisis of 1956, Britain and the United States came extremely close to open conflict. America’s sixth fleet stalked the Royal Navy and President Eisenhower discussed the possibility of “being ready to shoot” at the British fleet amongst his closest White House advisers. Underhand suspicion has continued throughout the 20th and 21st century. Another more recent example is in 1994 when President Clinton granted Gerry Adams a visa to the United States, effectively handing him the respectability to move into mainstream politics. This was at a time when the IRA posed a genuine threat to British security. Adams was leader of Sinn Fein, an alleged terrorist and at the very least a vocal critic of the United Kingdom. Can you imagine the fallout if the British government granted a visa to an individual on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list?

In reality there is no special relationship between Britain and the United States. This piece has not by any means attempted to portray the two nations as enemies, merely point out the several occasions where there has been genuine conflict. Conflict has occurred politically, economically and sometimes militarily far more recently than is widely recognized. The War on Terror in the early 21st century arguably brought the two nations closer together, particularly considering the close relationship between Tony Blair and George W Bush. Yet, in times of warfare this is necessary and cannot be cited as a sign of a transatlantic alliance. The more distant and often frosty relationship between current President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron is far more normal than the bond between Bush and Blair. In truth, the term “special relationship” is used as a political tool, used far more in London than Washington as a vain form of legitimising British foreign policy. The United States relationship with Britain is no more “special” than with France, Germany or Spain and we, as Britons, should not be so naïve as to think that we stand on a higher pedestal.