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Mythology of ‘American’ democracy

Opinion Piece

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.

Most of these latest articles do 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 Donald Trump's stormtroops on Wednesday. And they are correct in saying American democracy is still in serious trouble and that the populist tide is running strongly in the world.

The problem is with their view of the rest of the world and America's place in it. That is, the familiar mythology in which the US 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.

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. But before about 6000 years ago there were 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 6000 years ago. The only way to run them was from the top down, by force, because without mass communications (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 13 years later (it even abolished slavery), and democracy just kept spreading. Half the governments on the planet are genuinely elected now, 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.

Gwynne Dyer

Leave a Reply to Roger Dodd, Melbourne Cancel reply

  1. Tim Stewart says:

    Typical ‘progressive hypocrite’
    Apparently Gwynne Dyer knows what some people secretly aspire to (Mythology of American democracy- Jan 8 2021) Well on that basis I also know Gwynne secretly aspires to be a balanced, unbiased, fact based reporter that does not tell lies and searches for both sides of a story. What a shame he fails so miserably and is just another main stream media hack. His type have aided so much to the division of peoples and their lack of knowledge of the truths in society and politics. Keep trying to pull the wool over peoples eyes Gwynne – you are just another reason more and more people do not trust news outlets world wide. Oh and can I just add once more I think you are an absolute media hack (definition: A cheap, mediocre or second rate practitioner especially in the field of journalism, providing deliberately misleading stories)

    1. Roger Dodd, Melbourne says:

      Bit harsh there Tim but this is a democracy after all. Could you just explain which parts of Mr Dyer’s history lesson above are false and misleading? Me being a bit of a couch social anthropologist and all, his “stories” are spookily close to my own.

    2. Aimee says:

      Oh Tim, I feel for you. Hope you don’t feel to embarrassed about mistaking an opinion piece by a member of the public for journalism, although it was well written. It must be uncomfortable to feel like anything mainstream is out to get you. Relax dude.

      1. Tim Stewart says:

        Fair enough Aimee, but Dyer would be considered a journalist and not just a member of the public. I am a bit over him using his previous columns on American politics to knowingly and blatantly lie while pretending to be factual – he knows he is doing it but is happy/proud to deceive- what a creep. But in the words of the great umpire – time to get over it. Thanks for your concern Aimee, appreciated.

  2. Bob Hughes says:

    Unlike Tim, I see nothing deceiving or misleading in “Gwynne’s Mythology of ‘American’ democracy” effort, only merit.
    The way I see it America’s democracy was flawed from its very beginnings.
    For the majority of the nation’s whole existence, many of its citizens have been excluded from any say in their governing.
    White men drafted The USA Declaration of Independence, that was approved on July 4, 1776.
    The document proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
    Yet even at the time, the law allowed a brutal system of slavery to operate
    The first president George Washington was actually a slave owner and irresponsibly ordered native Indians to be killed
    Throughout the southern states and the original races of native Americans were being persecuted everywhere
    Native races, African Americans, and women were denied any voting rights or political power,
    It was not until 1920 women across the USA went to the polls
    Post WW I some Americans Indians were allowed to vote if they left their tribes. But not until 1957 that all could vote nationwide.
    As late as 1965 voting rights act removed barriers to Black rights in the South, that nearly all African Americans eventually won the right to do so. It certainly.
    So for much of the period of America’s land of the free, it has not been so for the groups of people I have mentioned
    Adding this and other nasties going on right now to all Gwynne has pointed out I agree “Mythology of ‘American’ democracy” is a very appropriate heading for his column.