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The American Experiment: Is Democracy Required?

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On Election Day 2018, Americans exercise a right of citizenship that has been evolving over the last 200 years.  When the Founding Fathers invoked ideals of liberty and justice, democracy was still under consideration as a means to get there, and, it remains a work in progress.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.

Marcus Daniel, Associate Professor in the UH Manoa History Department discusses America's struggle to achieve democracy and address its founding ideals

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Marcus Daniel teaches Revolutionary and Early National America at UH M?noa.  He’s studied this project we’re all working on, America, and says democracy is really a work in progress.

Daniel:  One thing I would say is the Founders certainly didn’t believe in a kind of unalloyed democracy.  They talked about freedom, they talked about liberty, but they didn’t talk about democracy and when they did, they talked about it in pejorative terms.  They saw democracy as problematic and often as a threat, being what Republicans today would call mob rule.

Daniel:  There was much more skepticism about that during the founding period.  As the country sought to govern itself, democracy was pursued as a means of attaining the founding ideals.

Since America was founded by idealistic white men with property, we have spent over 200  years working out what that pursuit of liberty and justice requires.   We have trusted that Democracy, defined as a system of government by the whole eligible population, will get us there.  So the barrier of owning property for political rights was severed, then, gender barriers were lifted, women got the vote. 

Professor Daniel contends there was no real democracy before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid '60’s lowered barriers to voting.

Daniel:  The original ideas about freedom and liberty were things that were soon to apply to what was seen as independent republican citizens who were largely male and white, and in the first instance property holders.

Daniel:  Then gradually the link between property and political rights gets sheared away and then, over the course of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the link between gender and political representation shifts, so women get the vote

Daniel:  And over the course of the 20th century, taking a much longer time, these links between race and citizenship get sort of transformed, finally by the civil rights movement so that our systems of political representation reflect much more the ideals of the founding period.  But it takes a long, long time.  Democracy, liberty, freedom….

Do people still agree on that?

Daniel:  I’m English, one of the peculiarities of American politics is the way everybody agrees on that,  There’s actually no disagreement about these sort of ideas, but they often remain at an abstract level.  And you know, the devil is in the details.  What Americans have always disagreed about is what those things actually mean when you try to implement them in terms of public policy.  What does freedom mean?  How does it mean different things to different people?  The deeper issue is Americans’ sense of engagement in the political system and their sense of investment and ownership in it.

So, why don’t more people vote?  When Daniel came to the U.S. 30 years ago from Britain where 70-80% people vote, he says he could not understand why more people didn’t vote.  He says he understands more now.  For one thing, voting is harder and more complicated here, there are more issues on the ballot.

Daniel:  And I think in many ways, Americans don’t get a lot from their government.  If you think about paying taxes in a place like England or Germany, you get health care, and public education that is really pretty good.  I think a lot of Americans feel like they don’t get much in return and there’s some reality to that.

As for the issue of many voters wanting to pay fewer taxes, choosing not to pay for services, Daniel says that’s a chicken or egg thing.  What comes first, disaffection, or lack or services?

Daniel:  We should be able to have ideological differences, then come together to implement public policy and accept elections and things like that. What does disturb me, is this sort of sense that, and I think it’s growing particularly on the right, but I think it’s there on the left too, that if the political system doesn’t deliver what I want, then somehow, it doesn’t work.  At that point, you reach what I would call a legitimacy crisis.  Basically, people will only buy into the political system when it provides what they believe in, and what they desire.  That is one step from disintegration in my view.  Because as soon as the political system doesn’t provide what you believe in or you want, then you opt out of it, then it’s illegitimate.  I think you hear this language on the right, particularly powerfully at the moment. 

Daniel:  What worries me now, in a sense now is, Trump winning worries me, but Trump losing might be even more troubling.  Because I think there are a lot of people out there on the right who think the political system is fundamentally corrupt.  The media’s corrupt, the political system doesn’t work.  The only reason they continue to accept it, is it has produced Trump himself, and it has produced Republican majorities.  The moment it begins not to do that, we’ll see.

Daniel:  I think this is where people are beginning to talk about where the system itself, the democratic political system, the system that operates through a political process becomes more and more tenuous, it holds the allegiance of Americans less and less.

Daniel:  In Germany in the 1920’s, before the rise of fascism, one of the most common political discourses was a contempt for politics.  They talked about the Germany parliament as a “talking shop”, an insult directed at a sort of do-nothing political system.  Germans themselves developed an enormous contempt for their political system.  I think that‘s the basis for thinking about alternatives to that.

Daniel:  So I see the cynicism and disaffiliation as potentially problematic and dangerous, even, if people cease to agree or buy into the legitimacy of the political process. Professor Daniel epands on this in the extended interview above.   

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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