By Bruce Walker
It is hard to say, precisely, what was the first modern democracy. Certainly the American colonies, the first American government, the second American government or the current third American government have an excellent claim. Representative democracy - without the slavery endemic in Athens and Rome - was clearly developing in Great Britain before our revolution. The Icelandic Althing also is a form of old and functioning direct democracy.
While choosing which democracy came first to the modern world, there is no question that America was the first preacher of true democracy to the world. There is no question that the dominos of democracy had a prime mover among polities: America.
Democracy was an uneven process throughout most of the last century. Tsarist Russia was much more democratic than the Soviet Union, which is to say it was mildly democratic. Imperial Germany was much less democratic than the Weimar Republic but much more democratic than Nazi Germany. During the dark decade of the 1930s, it certainly appeared that the light of democracy was fading.
Constitutional monarchy in Italy had been a dictatorship. Nascent democracies in the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas were torn into undemocratic regimes. China never reached democracy and the once functional democracy of Japan broke apart. Things looked bad and Orwell wrote about the grim future lurking over the noxious compound of misologies and technologies. Orwell was right, but Orwell was also wrong.
After the Second World War, those democracies left standing - which overwhelmingly meant simply America - decided, or rather resolved, that democracy and its blessings of peace would creep across the globe and end forever the thugs and gangs which had reigned since civilization began in forms sometimes harmless, sometimes even benign, but most often evil.
Hope, we determined, would win. Fission weapons and later fusion weapons are given much of the credit for what happened later, but this is misplaced. Fission and fusion weapons are still with us, and the ability to exterminate entire nations is as old as Assyria. Besides, Britain and France have the ability to "destroy the world," and even on the chilliest days across the Atlantic, no sane person loses a minute of sleep because of that.
The Holocaust is sometimes credited with the impulse to democracy, but the Holocaust, of course, was a democratic decision. Hitler was not unpopular. Nazis not only won free elections in Germany, but in the separate polities of Danzig and later of Memel. Slavery was democratically chosen not only in the Ancient World, but in the antebellum South.
The horrors of war are sometimes credited, but France - to her great shame - imposed upon Germany conditions that fed Hitler and snubbed Italy which produced Mussolini. France was as horrified from war as any people ever in 1919, but the choice of the French people was not democracy - Austria wanted to join Germany, but was forbidden by the French; upper Silesia voted to join Germany, but was forbidden by France; Saar and the Rhineland were kept from Germany, despite wanting to be part of the new democracy in Berlin. The French approach to peace failed; the American approach prevailed.
America rebuilt Germany and Japan. We extended our protection over those two highly martial lands and insured that each could embrace pacifism without fear. We insisted upon genuine democracy and freedom and the rule of law, even when the results of elections did not help us. It worked. Nation building by America worked.
Later, during the last years of the Cold War, America pushed and prodded the Soviet Union to give up its empire. The Baltic states, the Warsaw Pact nations, and finally the Soviet Socialist republics unhappily married into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became free and functioning democracies. American policies worked.
The Gipper, through an adroit combination of free trade and covert military support, brought democracy to nations of the Western Hemisphere once thought hopelessly despotic. All the nations of Central America are real democracies. Amazingly, Mexico is a genuine democracy with an elected president who does not belong to the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Now, as Afghans vote and as Iraqis vote, and as Palestinians vote and as Lebanese prepare to vote, is it too much to dream that Iranians and Chinese and North Koreans and Cubans will soon vote too? No - it is too much to dream, only if we stop thinking as Americans, citizens of the homeland of dreams.
We are accused of seeking empire by nations that once had empires and lost them. They see us through their own prism of narrow, nationalistic self-interest; they have no conception of what America really means. We are not so much a nation as an idea. We are an idea that works: a practical idea.
Forget the pundits, the shrinking membership of the Dictators' Club, the angry and spoiled children of all ages among American Leftism. Remember the dream that is America. Soon, very soon, it will be the dream of the world. Nothing else matters.
Bruce Walker is a contributing editor with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.
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