THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION

 

            With the one glaring exception of our War Between the States, the domestic history of the United States has been, by comparison with other nations, remarkably tranquil.  We have never endured a military coup, and companies of jackbooted thugs have never battled for possession of our streets.  For the most part, the rule of law has prevailed.  One has only to look at the experience of other countries in this century, in which the rule of kings and authoritarian colonial regimes have been cast off for other, more “popular” forms of government, to realize how fortunate we have been.  Civil order that depends on neither the awe inspired by a semi-divine monarchy nor an immediate recourse to armed force is a sufficiently unusual accomplishment.  The framers of the Constitution did very well to craft an article of government which has survived to its 200th birthday. 

            It is naive, however, to suppose that our success finds its origin in some quality peculiar to the document concocted by those late 18th Century lawyers, tradesmen and gentlemen farmers.  The constitution of the Philippines, for instance, was modeled directly after ours, but that did not prevent Ferdinand Marcos from making the transition from duly elected president to tyrant.  And ours is only one possible rulebook for participatory democracy; other constitutional formulas, for instance the British, have fared just as well at home and failed just as dismally abroad.  And the failures always greatly outnumber the successes.  The history of our times is littered with discarded parliaments and constituent assemblies—Lenin actually drove one off with machine guns—and dictatorships are much more the rule than the exception.  One has only to remember the fate of the Weimar constitution to grasp that there is no safety in good intentions and that democratic aspirations do not become invulnerable simply because they have been committed to paper.

            This seems peculiar, since the will to liberty appears to be universal, but the grounds for success or failure lie not in the documents themselves, but in the cultural and economic conditions against which the governments they engender must define themselves.  Freedom is the achievement of a whole society, not of a law code, and it depends less upon the desires of a nation than upon its capacities.  We in the United States can be pleased and proud that we have survived for two hundred years as a free people, yet the interesting question is not why our particular constitution has succeeded but why democratic institutions in general ever succeed anywhere.

            Still, it is useful to look at the example of our own experience, if only to identify the minimum qualifications for a functioning democracy.  What did we have in 1787—and what have we preserved since—that has kept our government from degenerating into one or another version of tyranny?  One thing, obviously, was that we began with the British parliamentary tradition behind us, but another and I think far more important advantage was and is that, although our society has changed so much that the Founding Fathers would hardly recognize it, we began and have continued to be a middle class nation, yeoman farmers at first and then, after about 1880, the balance swinging to an urban commercial economy.  The Marxists, who in their analysis of social dynamics are frequently far shrewder than their critics, are perfectly correct when they speak of “bourgeois democracy,” since representative government is simply an extension into politics of the ethic of self-reliance characteristic of people who, in purely economic terms, are very much on their own.  This, in essence, is what Americans have usually meant when describing themselves as a nation of “rugged individualists.”  The small farmer and the tradesman know that only their private efforts stand between themselves and ruin—they are outside the minimal protections of the feudal system—and at the same time they have enough material surplus to allow leisure for the luxuries of education and thought.  Therefore they adopt the attitude that things must be made to work, and they are in a position to see to it that they do.  The management of the state becomes not so very different from the management of a clothing store (Harry Truman being rather more successful at the former than at the latter), so government becomes a matter of practical issues rather than of personalities and bamboozling abstractions; it loses that quasi-religious atmosphere which is the natural element of the despot.

            This attitude toward life and the conduct of public affairs is so all-pervasive in the United States that today most people would tend to identify themselves as “middle class.”  Our country has never really had a self-conscious peasantry or proletariat; in a very real sense the bourgeoisie has subsumed them both.  And in varying degrees the same is now true for most of the industrialized world.  The economic system fosters patterns of behavior which are reflected in the political system.   The logic of the Marxist dialectic receives a perverse kind of confirmation.

            In like manner, tyrannies are due not, are at least not solely, to the villainy of individuals but to the inherent limitations of social structures and the habits of mind upon which they depend.  Representative government fails routinely in places where the economy is still fundamentally feudal, where the basis of wealth is agriculture and the land is in the hands of a small aristocracy—how many countries can you name with one-crop economies and no dictator?  Such places are always having revolutions, but, unlike our own, which was expressly political in character, the revolutions alter nothing because desperately poor people are too preoccupied with their own misery to be much interested in tinkering with the mechanism of government.  They are looking for saviors, strongmen, individual leaders in whom they can invest all their hopes, and we all know where that must lead.  The middle class, which might effect real change, is simply too small to make a difference.  Thus it is that in countries like Nicaragua the choice inevitably seems to be between a communist insurgency, either in or out of power, and a crowd of slapstick hooligans like the Contras, whom we have to pretend are the champions of democracy.   We have had a good thing going for us these last 200 years, but perhaps it isn't always for export.