The Road to Democracy

by Editors


The Road to Democracy

by Sarah Katherine Mergel

A recent discussion with my students on the present situation in Iraq highlighted an often forgotten, but very important lesson about the process of democratization and nation building—it takes time. True democracy took almost 200 years to develop fully into the system Americans enjoy today. When the former British colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, voting was restricted to a small minority of the population. The country only achieved true universal suffrage with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Success in developing democracy abroad has tended to come with persistence, while failure has resulted from a lack of staying power in the face of high expectations.

At the time of the American Revolution, colonial leaders seemed uncertain of their future. Some seemed even unsure about the decision to break away from the British Empire. No one knew what the Revolution would bring. As the colonies transitioned to a confederation of states, the founding fathers grappled with what it meant to be a citizen of the newly formed republic. They had a vision of liberty, carried over from their colonial days as British subjects, but liberty for whom? And what did that liberty entail?

The representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were republicans, not democrats. They believed that government should rest on the people’s consent, but not that the people should govern. The Constitution was revolutionary in its approach to federal government, but less revolutionary in who had an actual say in the way the country was governed. The Constitution actually left undefined who could vote in federal elections; it left states to set their own qualifications for voting. Most states at the time had limited voting to white men who held property or who could afford to pay the necessary taxes. Moreover, the delegates had little in common except that they had all been Englishman before the Revolution. So as they sat down to frame the American government, they had to overcome differences relating to religion, state size, and regional interests. Their differences led to the three-fifths compromise with respect to apportioning that left the institution of race-based slavery untouched. Under the Constitution, liberty and freedom only applied to some people.

The Age of Jackson brought the first significant changes to the democratic process in the United States. From 1820 to 1840, almost every state abandoned previous voting restrictions for white men. Moreover, citizens began to have a more direct say in who represented them at the local, state, and federal level. Andrew Jackson’s common man image and his core belief in a country governed for and by the people caused not only the formation of the Democratic party, but also an increased awareness of the people about the political process. The institution of the one white man one vote principle led to a skyrocketing of voter turnout.

The Civil War and Reconstruction brought the rights of citizenship, especially voting rights, to the forefront of American political life once again. Emancipated slaves and their white supporters looked forward to the day when not only would former male slaves vote, but women as well. The Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) not only ended slavery but ensured the civil and voting rights of African Americans. Sadly for proponents of women’s suffrage, the Fifteenth Amendment applied only to men—black and white—not women. As the North tired of enforcing Reconstruction and the Redeemers took over, state governments severely restricted voting rights for blacks. Southern states in the 1890s, enacted laws similar to the Mississippi Plan that limited the pool of eligible voters through literacy tests, the poll tax, and the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause protected poor, illiterate whites but not blacks. As the nation entered the progressive era, in theory a time of social and political advancement, a majority of blacks had been effectively disenfranchised.

The women’s suffrage movement had split on whether or not to support the Fifteenth Amendment in the 1860s. Some wanted suffrage for all, while others remained content to see black men receive the vote. That rift lasted until after the turn of the century, when the movement’s leaders realized their differences only hampered their efforts. During the progressive era, their work in the nation’s settlement houses and on other social improvement campaigns convinced women that the vote was absolutely necessary. If they wanted to enact real change to help the country’s disadvantaged, they had to have the right to cast ballots not only in state elections, but in national elections as well. Women suffrage activists eventually convinced Congress and the President to support the Nineteenth Amendment. After 1920, in theory the United States practiced universal suffrage. However, it was not until the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that Congress, at Lyndon Johnson’s urging, mandated federal oversight of elections in the South to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.

Effective representative democracy in the United States had taken time. Of course, the road to universal suffrage was only part of the equation as democracy developed. Throughout the nation’s history, the process of democratic government improved. The modern political system Americans enjoy came only as a result of trial and error. In the Jacksonian era, in many parts of the country the politics of deference, where the elite of society made all the decisions, fell out of favor. Voters gained the right to choose presidential electors and other state representatives. To encourage participation, governments added new polling places and increased polling hours. In the progressive era, reformers sought to end the control of political machines and party bosses. Therefore, states adopted the direct election of senators, primary elections for candidate selection, the secret ballot, the referendum, the recall, and the initiative. With these measures, voters had more power than ever to set the country’s legislative agenda.

Abroad, the United States has had both good and back luck with nation building and promoting democracy since it became an “empire” in 1898. In its foreign policy ventures, the U.S. has often attempted to create democracy through the supervision of municipal governments, promoting internal improvements, sponsoring education reforms, and of course enacting economic reforms. Efforts began with the occupation of the Cuba and Philippines at the turn of the century, and have of course continued to the present day with efforts to create a stable democracy in Iraq. Why the mixed results? In large part the rate of success and failure has depended on the level of commitment exerted by the American government. A few examples from the Cold War and post Cold War era provide excellent examples of this point.

As the Second World War came to a close, the United States sat down with its allies to determine how to deal with its defeated enemies Germany and Japan. In what would become West Germany, the U.S. worked with France and Britain to develop a new democratic state. On the other hand, in Japan the U.S. had free reign to develop policies. In both cases, however, the American government committed itself to programs that would help develop democracy and economic liberalism. The U.S. supplied a great deal of economic aid and provided for the defense needs of both countries. The American government successfully demilitarized and democratized Japan and West Germany, drawing them into the anticommunist orbit by the mid-1950s. In light of the growing tensions with the Soviet Union, American leaders felt compelled to create effective regional allies. West Germany and Japan proved effective in the fight against totalitarian governments. When direct control ended in these countries democracy flourished; however, the U.S. continued its military presence through the end of the Cold War.

Other initial successes during and after the Cold War turned into failures when considering the long term consequences, including Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. In 1983, Ronald Reagan sent troops to Grenada to destroy a Marxist regime with close ties to Cuba. The invasion was successful and U.S. helped install a noncommunist government. American presence on the small island nation proved short lived; the pro-American government over time became less and less democratic. George Bush sent U.S. forces into Panama in 1989 to remove Manuel Noriega from power (so that he could stand trial in the U.S. for drug trafficking). The task of nation building there has proved difficult. Since 1990, the government of Panama has continually shifted between democratic and autocratic influences leading to a remarkable amount of instability. Lastly, in 1994 Bill Clinton intervened in Haiti to safeguard the cause of democracy by restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The Clinton administration initially succeeded in its efforts. The U.S. occupation lasted only six months, at which point the administration turned the peace keeping responsibility over to the United Nations. Since then, Haiti has continued to experience political instability.

In all of the examples of success turned to failure, the United States started with seemingly good intentions, but the follow through proved ineffective. Perhaps Germany and Japan were simply more accepting of the ideas of democracy—both developed intro effective democratic governments. But perhaps, the long term American commitment made the transition. So can democracy be created in Iraq? Probably, in time. Patience on the part of the Iraqis and the Americans seems to be in order at least for the foreseeable future. One size does not fit all, even when it comes to democracy. Both Germany and Japan put their own stamp of democracy; they are not exact replicas of the American model.

How can the United States best help the Iraqis achieve their goal? Well, that question will have to be left to a future installment.

Bread and Circus contributing writer Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.