Tactless in America?

By Max Atkinson, Guest Contributor

The point I was making that Clark Judge has responded to was not that the UK had a better or older version of democracy than the USA, but that American claims to democratic superiority come across as a bit tactless to some of its closest allies.

His suggestion that it is no more than stating a simple fact to say that America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty had been there ‘from the hour of its independence’, still strikes me as overstating the case. After all, the commitment to individual liberty did not apply to slaves, and voting rights after independence were restricted to white male adult property owners – nor were they extended beyond that until about 1850, after which voters still had to be white and male. There then remained the de facto denial of African American voting rights in most southern states until as recently as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A year before that, Ronald Reagan had described the USA as the last stand on earth for freedom and liberty. And, although Clark may be right in saying that other free countries might have followed if the US had fallen, that was not the point I heard Mr Reagan to be making – unless George Bernard Shaw was right about Britain and the United States being ‘nations separated by a common language’ and we really do hear things differently.

His assertion that ‘the modern move of nations to personal liberty in the context of popular sovereignty originates in the United States’ is also debatable. For one thing, similar moves were already underway in various European countries at the time of the American revolution, though admittedly progress here was a good deal messier (e.g. the French revolution) or slower (e.g. Britain) than in the USA.  For another, it was the same intellectual force, the Enlightenment, that was driving change on both sides of the Atlantic. The American founding fathers may have made a cleaner and quicker job of it, but they did have the advantage of being in a new world with a blank slate to write on, unencumbered by trying to accommodate the new ideals within established, evolving and ancient forms of government.

The idea that America remains an internationally animating example of the ideal of popular sovereignty rests easily enough on foreign ears – until hyperbole strikes again with the addition of ‘to a degree that no other country equals’. On reading that, other famous words of Ronald Reagan sprang to mind: “There you go again!”

But I stress again that I have no interest in asserting the superiority of the UK brand of democracy and liberty. There have been too many missed opportunities and dubious imperialistic adventures for us to be smug about our past or complacent about our present. And there’s still unfinished business and more work to be done. To take but one example, the Blair government finally got around to abolishing the hereditary principle as a basis for membership of the House of Lords, but has left us with entry qualifications to the upper house that are as far removed from any democratic principles as could be imagined (as you can see by looking here).

This willingness to find fault in British constitutional arrangements is not a preface to withdrawing my original complaint, but a reminder of the dangers of complacency: to compare democracies and/or to assert the superiority of one over another is to enter difficult and delicate territory, for the obvious reason that there are no universally established or objective principles of what counts as ‘pure’ democracy and liberty. In the absence of any such measuring device, it is surely healthier for people committed to these ideals to admit that there may still be room for improving the way their own country puts them into practice than it is to believe that one or other of us has already reached perfection, or the most perfect version that any nation can ever hope to achieve.

If I were an American, I know that I would definitely not be arguing for a 28th constitutional amendment that would prohibit any further amendments. But, as an Englishman, I’m far too polite to start pointing out possible flaws in the US constitution that could perhaps be changed for the better.

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