Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Is the US a Democracy?

Written by johnleemk on 12:41:35 pm Aug 22, 2007.

These days, it is quite common to see self-professed liberal democrats criticise that self-professed bastion of liberal democracy, the United States of America.

Frequently, it is argued that the United States is no democracy. Depending on the point of view of the arguer, it either never was a democracy, or recently stopped being one.

Assuming we look at this issue only from the perspective of liberal democracy, both arguments have their merits. (Some extreme American conservatives argue that the US is not a democracy because that is not how the founding fathers perceived it; I do not really find this argument convincing, even though I usually agree with the sentiments behind it.)

However, I think that those who believe America only recently turned away from liberal democracy are inconsistent in their views; they have taken a myopic outlook.

Everyone knows that the US now has draconian laws such as the PATRIOT Act, imprisons people in American-run prisons in foreign countries so it can torture them and withhold their right to due process, and what-have-you.

What many seem to either forget or ignore is that such undemocratic practices are nothing new to ther US. Everyone knows of the slavery and discrimination that persisted in the United States from the day it was founded right until the middle of the 19th century, and how subtle discrimination continued afterwards, possibly even till today.

But even putting that aside, the second president of the US, John Adams, enacted laws against sedition, effectively barring criticism of the government. The much-vaunted Abraham Lincoln also muzzled those who criticised his war policies by unlawfully and unconstitutional means. Woodrow Wilson did the same. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is well known. How the US worked to topple democracies which did not lean its way during the Cold War is not exactly uncommon knowledge.

To me, then, the case that America has never been a democracy is a much stronger one. Undemocratic practices have always persisted throughout its history.

However, as the regular reader of my ramblings might have realised, I am rarely inclined to look at things in a dichotomic way, preferring to think of them in terms of probabilities lying on a spectrum.

As such, although the US is definitely not a pure liberal democracy (and the odds of any imperfect society ever achieving a perfect liberal democracy being practically nil), I would say that most of us would be hard-pressed to name a more democratic country (perhaps besides Switzerland).

I would say that besides Switzerland, there are not many other countries which have managed to propound and implement the principles of liberal democracy. The implementation is highly imperfect, but in a country of 300 million people, who would expect anything to be even close to perfect? (It's a lot easier for countries 10 or 20 times smaller to get things mostly right.)

The most important thing about liberal democracy is its empowerment of the individual to lead his life the way he choose, provided it does not infringe on this same right of anyone else. In this, I believe it would be difficult, nay, impossible for anyone to assert that the US has failed relative to other countries.

The next thing is empowerment of the individual to participate in civil society to shape the policies which influence his life. Again, it is difficult to argue that the US has not succeeded, relative to other countries. The primary election system is something quite unique to the US; involvement in political life at all levels of the community is possible.

The numerous human rights violations of the US are a blight upon its democratic reputation. That is impossible to deny. But just ask — which country has given more people these rights and given more people the power to shape their future as individuals and as a society? If the US is not a democracy, then hardly any countries are true democracies.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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