Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

“American” Democracy

If I have to read one more hand-wringing article about the “crisis of American democracy” and what it means for the world, I’m going to retch.

The last straw was an article in the New Yorker this week by Adam Gopnik, an accomplished journalist whom I usually admire. It was called What We Get Wrong About America’s Crisis of Democracy, and the strapline read, “The interesting question is not what causes authoritarianism but what has ever suspended it.”

No, that’s the wrong question. It assumes, as Gopnik says, that, “The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.”

The obvious way to continue this article would be to point out that Joe Biden won the election, that thanks to the run-off elections in Georgia the Democrats will control both houses of Congress, and that the joint session of Congress withstood the assault of Trump’s storm-troopers on Wednesday (Jan. 6).

All that is true, but Gopnik is correct in saying that American democracy is still in serious trouble and that the populist tide is running strongly in the world. The problem is with his view of the rest of the world and America’s place in it.

Gopnik grew up in Canada, but he seems to have drunk the American Kool-Aid. That is the familiar mythology in which the United States is not only the first mass democracy but the indispensable one, the shining example without which the others would wander hopelessly in the darkness.

That’s not true. Democracy, not autocracy, is the default mode political system, even though it is “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” as Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons in 1947 (quoting an unknown predecessor).

Almost every dictator in the world holds fake elections so he can claim legitimacy, however fraudulently. No democratic leaders falsely claim to be dictators or tyrants (although some, like Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orbán in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines, secretly aspire to it). So default mode democracy wins in a walk.

This was not true before the 18th century. There are indeed “all those thousands of years of history” when the norm was “some form of autocracy.” But before that there are all those hundreds of thousands of years of pre-history when all humans lived as equals, reaching their decisions by discussion and consensus, in little hunter-gatherer bands.

We know this because some of those bands, living in out-of-the-way places, survived long enough for anthropologists to study them – and they were all egalitarian. In fact, they had no formal leaders, and the worst social crime was for one adult man to give an order to another.

They didn’t hold elections, because the bands were hardly ever more than a hundred strong and they could just talk things over. But the core belief of democracy is that everybody has equal rights including a share in the decision-making process, and our distant ancestors all believed that. They believed it for so long that it became a basic human value.

That basic human belief went underground when the first mass societies appeared around 6,000 years ago. The only way to run them was from the top down, by force, because without mass communications (and they hadn’t even invented writing yet) there was no way for tens or hundreds of thousands of people to make decisions together as equals.

So the tyrants took over and had a very long run, but the belief in equality never died, as all the slave and peasant revolts attest. And by the 18th century a kind of mass communications had finally emerged. Just the printing press plus mass literacy, but that meant everybody could get back to making decisions together as equals, and so the democratic revolutions began.

The United States was the first, perhaps because it then had the highest rate of literacy in the world. The far more radical French Revolution came only thirteen years later (it even abolished slavery), and democracy just kept spreading. By now half the governments on the planet are genuinely elected, and the other half pretend to be.

Democracy has nothing to do with being American or “Western.” China was the first country with printing, and if it had also had mass literacy it could well have been the first country to have a democratic revolution. American democracy will probably survive its current difficulties. Democracy as the default mode in the world certainly will.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This Dec. 2, 2020, file photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows vials of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)
Interior Health notes 80 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

108 people in the region have died from the virus

Forty-eight vaccination clinics will open across Interior Health beginning March 15. (Canadian Press)
48 COVID-19 vaccine clinics to open across Interior Health

Select groups can book appointments starting Monday

Seniors in the Interior Health region can book their COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7 a.m. (File photo)
Seniors in Interior Heath region can book COVID-19 shots starting Monday

Starting March 8 the vaccination call centre will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

Interior Health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5. (Black Press Files)
Interior Health reports 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5

Over 300,000 vaccine doses have been administered provincewide.

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to Stoney and Minnie lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Cottonwoods Care Home in Kelowna. (Google Maps)
New COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna care home includes fully vaccinated seniors: Henry

Two staff and 10 residents tested positive at Cottonwoods Care Centre

Excerpts from a conversation between Bria Fisher and the fake truLOCAL job. Fisher had signed a job agreement and was prepared to start work for what she thought was truLOCAL before she learned it was a scam. (Contributed)
B.C. woman warning others after losing $3,000 in job scam

Bria Fisher was hired by what she thought was a Canadian company, only to be out thousands

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provide a regular update on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, March 2, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 cases: 545 Saturday, 532 Sunday, 385 Monday

Focus on Prince Rupert, Lower Mainland large workplaces

Rising accident rates and payout costs have contributed to billion-dollar deficits at ICBC. (Comox Valley Record)
B.C. appealing decision keeping ICBC injury cases in court

David Eby vows to ‘clip wings’ of personal injury lawyers

(Black Press Media files)
Hosts charged, attendees facing COVID fines after Vancouver police bust party at condo

Police had previously received 10 complaints about that condo

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. A joint federal and B.C. government housing program announced today aims to help people living in up to 25,000 vulnerable households pay their rent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Federal, B.C. governments announce $517-million rent aid program to help vulnerable

Benefits for those not eligible for B.C.’s Rental Assistance Program or Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters

(BC SPCA)
Is it safe to give your dog some peanut butter? Not always, BC SPCA warns

Some commercial peanut butter ingredients can be harmful to dogs

Most Read