GOVERNANCE

Attack on US Capitol a reminder that democracies are experiments

In Summary
  • The American story was weaved by its founding fathers on an ideology of exceptionalism and ‘we-come-first’ philosophy
  • American democracy has thus functioned all this time within the space of invisibility. Whether she still qualifies for that role is a different matter
Ranting Trump trashes tradition
Ranting Trump trashes tradition
Image: OZONE

Last week, the world was dismayed to watch the US Capitol, a symbol of democracy, overrun by Trump supporters.

Whilst different world leaders issued strongly-worded statements condemning the act, it was statements from African states that carried the greatest sarcasm. You see, in ordinary times America would offer unsolicited lecture to African countries on constitutionalism. But these aren’t ordinary times.

This incident gave third world countries, particularly in Africa, that have for a very long time been at the receiving end of America’s paternalistic views on democracy, a chance to question that moral authority.

But why, for many decades, has America managed to lord it over other countries on matters democracy and rule of law without falling victim to the failure or absence of the same?

Two reasons stand out. One, the American story was weaved by its founding fathers on an ideology of exceptionalism and ‘we-come-first’ philosophy. American democracy has thus functioned all this time within the space of invisibility. Whether she still qualifies for that role is a different matter.

Two, the American constitution was created through a protracted process that involved delegates from different states who were more interested in achieving a strong, prosperous union than acquiring or preserving political power.

It’s the preservation of these principles that has enabled America’s democracy to stand the test of time. “The constitution of man is the work of nature while that of the state the work of art,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote.

America was the first country to have its constitution written and printed. England’s constitution, though older, was still unwritten by the 18th century and was largely based on customs and precedents.

But, according to American historian Jill Lepore, the US constitution was not the first written constitution in the history of the world. The world’s first written and popularly ratified constitutions were drafted by the American states, beginning in 1776. Each state was a laboratory, each of the new constitutions a political experiment. As Lapore puts it: A body is constituted of its parts, a nation of its laws.

In a summary, American democracy is founded on Aristotle’s understanding of government. Like Aristotle, 18th century Americans believed that to achieve a perfect political experiment free from corruption and violence, there was need to mesh a monarchy, an aristocracy and a polity – the three types of government Aristotle taught.

According to Aristotle, a corrupt monarchy is a tyranny, a corrupt aristocracy an oligarchy, and a corrupt polity is a democracy.

The perceived infallibility of American democracy cannot be explained without understanding the history of its development. And that history cannot be understood without going back to the philosophy of Aristotle.

The insurrection that happened in the US Capitol on January 6 should serve to remind us that while the security of any social contract in any democracy is the responsibility of both the political class and the people, the former wields the greatest responsibility.

Had Trump abandoned his unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud, America would not have been as polarised as we have seen it in recent months. By letting his ego eclipse the tenets of American democracy, Trump knowingly stoked the embers that led to the storming of the US Capitol.

But Trumpism isn’t an American problem. Populist leaders in young democracies already subscribe to some of its elements such as entitlement to political power. Many African countries have had their social contracts violated with impunity by the political class. Zimbabwe, Sudan and Uganda are some of the examples that quickly come to mind.

Journalism student at Multimedia University of Kenya