The divided United States

Some people see the United States of America as the world-wide champion of democracy. Some see it as the new Evil Empire. Both are right.

Both of these tendencies were present from the day that the newly independent American colonies signed their Declaration of Independence.

There were among the signatories disciples of Tom Paine, author of the book “The Rights of Man” and bogeyman to those who wanted to preserve the aristocracy in England. Paine preached the principles of the 1789 French revolution: Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood in a world dominated by those who thought that they knew best because they were born to rule. Other signatories favoured something more like the ancient Roman Republic, which had been ruled by a privileged group of propertied white male citizens. Within that group, they left room for debate and voting, but women, slaves, non-citizens and other inferior people didn’t get a hearing. Benjamin Franklin stood with the first group; Thomas Jefferson symbolises the second.

Both groups saw the new United States as something new in the world. One side wanted to spread liberty throughout the world. The other thought it had a mission to become a Power that could assert its independence of the old Powers in Europe; the original 13 united States had an imperial mission to spread their rule across north America and to lead the lesser nations of central and south America – a new Power in the old style.

So every major event in US history can be read two ways.

The Monroe Doctrine was not just a warning to the old colonial Powers to keep out of the Americas. To some, it was a declaration of US hegemony over the western hemisphere.

Lincoln’s abolition of slavery may have advanced freedom, but it was also a calculated move to win support in the Civil War between the old-fashioned slave-owning South and the modern, industrialising North. Slavery wasn’t only immoral. It was inefficient. A slave will work no more than he is forced to, but if you tell a man he is free and pay him an inadequate wage, his first attempt to better himself will probably be to work overtime to earn more money. Strikes and protests only come when that way has proved ineffective.

The US may have had democratic structures with more voters (every adult white male property owner) when Europe was a collection of autocracies, but it was behind Europe in extending the vote to every adult. Women got the vote later than in much of Europe, and, although black men may theoretically have been eligible to vote after the Civil War, they were “discouraged” from registering as voters by whites with economic power and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. It took the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to produce enough black voters to make their voice heard. Even now, more black and Hispanic Americans than whites fail to register as voters.

It is not surprising that Lincoln’s Republican Party became the party of big business, while the slave-owners’ Democratic Party transformed itself into the party of immigrant workers and most Black Americans. It is not surprising that Obama is a Democrat, but it is equally unsurprising that his power is limited by the power of the military and big business. For example, I believe that Obama was sincere in promising to close Guantanamo Bay and that he and Hilary Clinton were sincere when they expressed support for the democratic movement in Egypt, but their failure to deliver on those promises shows the power of the military-industrial complex to limit the power of their elected government. Americans don’t assassinate their presidents any more: they don’t need to when the president can be ignored and quietly overruled.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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