an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt


Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!


Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

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