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It is often said that America "invented" democracy. This view is, of course, an understatement; America invented not only democracy, but freedom, justice, liberty, and "time-sharing." But representative democracy is unquestionably our proudest achievement, the creation most uniquely our own, even if the rest of the Western world would have come up with the idea themselves by the 1820s. So why, then, has participation in this most wondrous system withered?
As heirs to a legacy more than two centuries old, it is understandable why present-day Americans would take their own democracy for granted. A president freely chosen from a wide-open field of two men every four years; a Congress with a 99 percent incumbency rate; a Supreme Court comprised of nine politically appointed judges whose only oversight is the icy scythe of Death—all these reveal a system fully capable of maintaining itself. But our perfect democracy, which neither needs nor particularly wants voters, is a rarity. It is important to remember there still exist many other forms of government in the world today, and that dozens of foreign countries still long for a democracy such as ours to be imposed on them.
To regain our sense of perspective and wonder, we must take a broader historical view, looking beyond America's relatively recent success story to examine our predecessors and their adorable failures. In this chapter, we will briefly explore the evolution of an idea, following the H.M.S. Democracy on her dangerous voyage through the mists of time, past the Straits of Monarchy, surviving Hurricane Theocracy, then navigating around the Cape of Good Feudal System to arrive, battered but safe, at her destined port-of-call: Americatown.
Early Man: More Animal Than Political
The human race is by nature brutal, amoral, unreasonable, and self-centered, but for the first few hundred thousand years of our existence as a species, we were way too obvious about it. Primitive culture centered on survival of the individual and, occasionally, survival of someone the individual might want to reproduce with (see 1981's harrowing documentary Caveman). Civic institutions were nonexistent, as was debate, which would appear later after the invention of the frontal lobe. For prehistoric man the rule of law, such as it was, could best be summed up by the seminal case Marbury's Head v. Madison's Rock.
Early man lived this tenuous Darwinian nightmare for an age or two, until a peculiar thing happened: The unfittest decided they wouldn't mind surviving either. The feeble and weak realized that without a good plan they weren't going to make it out of the Stone Age to see the wonder that was clay. Alone, they were mammoth meat. Together, they would become a force with a chance to see the day when their children's children would be only 75 percent covered in hair. From these noble impulses, the groundwork for the first civilizations was laid.
Athens: Our Big Fat Greek Forerunners
Ancient Greece is widely credited with creating the world's first democracy. It would be a worthy endeavor to travel back in time to the feta-strewn shores of fifth-century B.C. Athens and ask Plato to define democracy, and not only to make money gambling on Olympics results that we, being from the future, would already know. Plato would tell us, in that affectionate but nonsexual way of his, that "democracy" is a Greek word combining the roots for "people" ("demos-") and "rule" ("-kratia"). In Greek democracy, political power was concentrated not in the hands of one person, or even a small group of people, but rather evenly and fairly distributed among all the people1, meaning every John Q. Publikopolous could play a role in Athenian government. The main legislative body, the Assembly, was comprised of no less than the first 6,000 citizens to arrive at its meetings—and bear in mind, no saving seats. Jury duty was considered an honor to be vied for. Membership in most other civic institutions, including the Supreme Court, was chosen... by lot! Imagine a system in which anyone could wind up serving on the Supreme Court. Anyone. Think about your own family. Friends. The guys you knew in college who would eat dog feces for ten dollars. Now picture one of them as your randomly chosen Chief Justice, and you'll appreciate just how fucked-up this system was.
Compared with American democracy, the Athenian version seems simplistic, naive, and gay. Transcripts of early Athenian policy debates reveal a populace moved more by eloquence and rationality than demagogues and fear-mongering. Thankfully, this type of humane governance wasn't allowed to take root. Athens's great experiment ended after less than two centuries, when, in 338 B.C., Philip of Macedon's forces invaded the city, inflicting on its inhabitants the eternal fate of the noble and enlightened: to be brutally crushed by the armed and dumb.
Rome: The First Republicans
The fall of Athens was followed by the emergence, overnight, of Rome. At first glance its people2 appear to have enjoyed a system of representative government similar to ours. True, behind its facade of allegedly "representative" officials lurked a de facto oligarchy ruled by entrenched plutocrats. But the similarities don't end there. In fact, the Founding Fathers borrowed many of their ideas from the Roman model, including its bicameral legislature, its emphasis on republicanism and civic virtue, and its Freudian fascination with big white columns.
However, there was very little real democracy in Rome. While the Senate theoretically represented the people, in reality its wealthy members covertly pursued pro-business legislation on behalf of such military-industrial giants as JavelinCorp, United Crucifix, and a cartel of resource-exploiting companies known as Big Aqueduct. They even monopolized the most notorious aspect of Roman life, instituting an orgy policy that can literally be described as "trickle-down."
Vomitoriums aside, Rome's biggest contribution to American government was probably its legal system, which codified key concepts like equal protection, "innocent until proven guilty," and the right to confront one's accusers. These very same issues would later form the basis of both the Bill of Rights and a mind-numbing quantity of Law and Order scripts. But by the time of Rome's huge millennium celebration marking the beginning of 0 A.D., the faint light of Roman democracy was all but extinguished. The Republic had given way to Empire. The only voting to speak of took place in the Colosseum and was generally limited to a handful of disembowelment-related issues. In time, the Empire itself fell, as history teaches us all empires inevitably must.3 Its most enduring legacy: a numerical system that allowed future generations to more easily keep track of Super Bowls.
The Magna Carta: Power to the Extremely Wealthy People
And then, darkness. For more than 1,000 years democracy disappeared from the European scene. The period instead saw the blossoming of an exciting array of alternate forms of government, such as monarchy, absolute monarchy, kingship, queenhood, and three different types of oppression (religious/ethnic/"for shits and giggles"). As for individual liberty, "innocent until proven guilty" was rapidly supplanted by a more aggressive law-and-order approach better characterized as "guilty until proven flammable."
Democracy had disappeared. The people needed a champion, and as is usually the case, the obscenely rich rode to the rescue. In 1215, England's wealthy barons refused to give King John the money he needed to wage war unless he signed the Magna Carta. The document codified that no man was above the law. Unfortunately for the peasant class, it did little to address how many were below it. Startlingly ahead of its time, this extraordinary document had a profound effect on people4 and continues to shape twenty-first-century views on topics as diverse as escheat, socage, burage, novel disseisin, and the bailiwicks of Gerard of Athee. But even more importantly, the Magna Carta set a powerful precedent for our own Founding Fathers: There was no more powerful means of safeguarding individual liberty than a vaguely worded manifesto inked in inscrutable cursive on dilapidated parchment.
The Magna Carta served as a wake-up call that Europe would be forced to answer—in about five hundred years. For Lady Democracy, having lain dormant for more than a millennium, had risen from its slumber only to stretch its arms, reach for the clock, and groggily set the snooze bar for "The Enlightenment."
The 17th and 18th Centuries: Enlightening Strikes
Though a promising development for democracy, the Magna Carta was mostly ignored as the world plunged into what would be known as the Dark Ages. It was an apt title for an era when amoebic dysentery was considered the good kind of dysentery. Oppression and high mortality rates seemed ready to swallow what remained of mankind, when through the darkness emerged the light that would be its salvation: Reason. It began slowly. "Hey, what if we stop storing the corpses in the drinking water and see if that makes any difference to our health?" From there, it gathered momentum. Soon, all conventional wisdom, from the shape of the Earth to whether the ruling class could have your hut burned and your organs removed because they thought you caused an eclipse, was up for grabs. This last question proved especially pertinent for the future of democracy and ushered in an era known as the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, would finally provide democracy with its philosophical underpinnings. The 17th and 18th centuries produced a wave of prominent thinkers espousing political systems based on what they called "the social contract." Government, they theorized, was a sort of legal agreement between the rulers and the ruled, the terms of which were binding on both parties. It was a groundbreaking theory. All they needed now was some country dumb enough to try it before the King found out and had them all drawn and quartered.
Democracy needed a fresh start—hearty and idealistic champions who would strike out for a new world, willing to risk everything for the principles of equality, liberty, justice... and slaves. We'd need some slaves and guns. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. A new world awaited.
1 For purposes of Greece, "people" means "free adult males."
2 For purposes of Rome, "people" means "free adult males with property."
3 Except America
4 For the purposes of the Magna Carta, "people" means "free adult males with property who signed the Magna Carta."
This is excerpted from America (The Book), by Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show. Copyright © 2004 by Busboy Productions, Inc. and published by Warner Books. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy America (The Book) at Amazon.com.