We have seen in eight posts since November 1 that there are several limitations to American democracy. The American Revolution began in 1763 as a movement led by the American elite, which called upon the masses for support, invoking a rhetoric that was nationalist and anti-British but vague on contradictory class interests within the American colonies. By 1775-77, the popular classes had emerged as significant actors that were moving the revolution toward addressing the interests of the popular classes vis-à-vis the elite. However, the elite was able to retake control of the movement, and the Constitution of 1787 was the culmination of the victorious elite countermovement. Thus in the final analysis the American Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, although it did establish the foundation for a popular discourse and movement that could expand and deepen the meaning of democracy to address the interests of the popular classes.
The Constitution of the United States, as a document of a bourgeois revolution, contained limitations in relation to popular interests. It established the balance of power, in order that the elite could check the power of the popular classes. It established larger voting districts, facilitating the dependence of candidates on financial resources. And it confined the proclamation of democratic rights to political and civil rights.
In the years since the American Revolution of 1763-87, popular classes in the United States and in the world have sought to expand the meaning of democracy, so as to include persons initially excluded, and to deepen the meaning of democracy, in order to include rights that had not been addressed. The expansion of democracy involved above all the inclusion of people of color and women, and the struggle for their inclusion essentially had been won by the 1960s, although the legacy of the earlier period of exclusion and denial survives in subtle and indirect forms. The deepening of democracy has involved the proclamation of rights in new areas as well as the proclamation of the rights of nations and peoples. Thus humanity has affirmed: the social and economic rights of all persons; the rights of nations to self-determination and sovereignty; and the rights of all nations and peoples to sustainable development. And the deepening of democracy also has involved the development of popular power, a form of democracy characterized by the direct participation of the people, as an alternative to representative democracy.
At the time of the American Revolution, the thirteen colonies had entered the world-system in a semi-peripheral role, profiting from a lucrative trade relation with the slaveholders in the Caribbean. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various factors would facilitate the ascent of the United States in the world-system, culminating in its emergence by the middle of the twentieth century as the hegemonic power of the neocolonial world-system (“Slavery, development, and US ascent” 8/30/2013; “Cotton” 9/9 2013; “The military-industrial complex” 8/29/2013).
The spectacular ascent to hegemony distorted popular discourse in the United States, as popular interests came to be understood as tied to the rise of US economic and political power. As a result, constraints were placed on the capacity of US popular movements to reflect on the expanding and deepening meaning of democracy occurring throughout the world. The notion of the protection of social and economic rights came to be much more widely accepted in Western Europe and in the Third World than in the United States. And the rights of nations and peoples, such as the rights of self-determination and sustainable development, have been essentially beyond the scope of popular discourse and reflection.
It is widely believed in the United States that it is the most democratic nation on earth. There is some truth to this belief. The Constitution of the 1787 establishes the United States as the longest-standing constitutional democracy. And the nation has a strong tradition in the protection of political and civil rights, although it also has a record of periodically violating political and civil rights in the defense of its neocolonial interests.
However, in reality, the United States has a limited understanding of democracy. The political culture does not affirm that housing, health care, and education are rights held by all, not conditioned by one’s capacity to pay. And the political debates concerning foreign policy assume that US economic and political interests in the neocolonial world-system should be defended, with little concern for the rights of nations and peoples of the world to self-determination and sustainable development. At the same time, US popular culture lacks structures to facilitate popular reflection on the meaning of democracy. Thus, as the peoples of the world have sought to deepen the meaning of democracy during the course of the twentieth century, the people of the United States have been largely absent from this global process. As a consequence, both the political elite and the people have a superficial and limited understanding of democracy, which leaves the nation unprepared to act responsibly in the world.
There was a time when it was not so. In the 100 or so years following the American Revolution, the United States of America was viewed as a symbol of the promise of democracy, especially in Latin America, in spite of its recognized expansionism in relation to the indigenous nations and Mexico. But as the United States rose to neocolonial hegemony, it increasingly intervened in other nations in order to promote its economic and political interests, hypocritically pretending to be defending democracy. And the American promise of democracy was transformed into the American Creed, a belief in opportunity for material success integrally tied to a consumer society. Thus the potential for the development of a democratic nation unleashed by the American Revolution has not been realized.
We the people of the United States should seek to renew the American promise of democracy. But how? I will seek to address this question in the next post.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, American Revolution