Still Waiting for An American Revolution
According to a widely held belief that is cherished by most Americans, their country was born in a revolution. For all the popular appeal of that founding myth, the world is still waiting for an American revolution.
This is not to belittle the achievement of the country’s Founding Fathers. Their collective action certainly shook off the yokes of a foreign king — King George III of Great Britain — and put Americans in charge of their own destiny.
But getting rid of a foreign ruler, whether one that is truly oppressive or more of an irritant, does not a revolution make. It merely constitutes an act of national liberation. In that regard, the United States of America was the early bird. Other victims of foreign colonization — in particular, dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America — only accomplished that act roughly two centuries later.
In sharp contrast, revolutions are always social in nature. The essential measure of a true revolution is whether or not the cardinal moment — call it "your throat or my share," often spoken at knife point — ever occurred.
Now, it is true, there was a Boston Tea Party in 1773. That event reflected true concerns about what early Americans considered inappropriate, or even expropriatory, revenue-sharing by the British crown. However, that action was directed at a foreign king, not America's own socio-economic power structure.
There are those who argue that the revolution occurred when "all the king's men," departed. This term refers to the colonial loyalists to the British crown who either returned to England or moved north, to Canada (whose founding motif was that of a royalist holdout). These loyalists had generally been the ones to hold the economic power in the new colonies.
That was a significant event, but no revolution. All that essentially occurred was the replacement of one set of economic elites — call them the British loyalists — with another, the American Patriots. The victors did profess loyalty to the American venture and an abandonment of British causes.
Their change of heart came about not so much because of any rejection of British cultural habits or social beliefs. Rather, it was the requirement — and benefit — of their stepping into the powerful economic role of the departing pro-British loyalists.
Other observers argue that the American Revolution — including the critical component of social upheaval — was essentially fulfilled by virtue of the fact that the United States was a democracy from its inception. In their eyes, this obviated the need for any revolution.
That is certainly a compelling argument, especially considering that at the time feudalism prevailed in many European nations. There, the establishment of a democracy was indeed the end result of a usually prolonged and painstaking process of shaking off the royals, often involving bloody bouts of revolution.
Viewed from this perspective, America was lucky. It did not need a bloody revolution to achieve the same end result as the Europeans, with their far more entrenched forms of social stratification. As a consequence, the United States — never having had feudalist structures to begin with — did not need to shake them loose in any bloody manner.
This way of looking at the power structure of the United States is certainly very compelling — and its founding myth of having been born in a "revolution" has been spun into other enticing core beliefs.
One important example is the famous debate on "why there is no socialism in America"? The underlying assumption is that a nation that was formed by citizens who are in charge of their own destiny from the get-go essentially does not undergo political oppression and economic exploitation.
Unlike Europe’s working classes who often were the objects of the political process in feudalist societies, American workers were said to be its subjects. In short, no kings, no princes and no counts — et voilà, social balance is put into place.
Whether or not that is actually true is another matter. For now, it is important to remember that the events of 1776 culminated in the successful liberation of a territory — which, in turn, gave birth to the successful rise of a democratic nation.
And yet, as impressive and path breaking as both of those events were, and as much as they had a radiating effect on the rest of the world for centuries to come, they did not represent a revolution. At most, some arguments can be made with good reason that America, because of its special circumstances and path of development, never needed a revolution.
It certainly did not have one back in the time when it is supposed to have happened, during its War of Independence from 1776 to 1783. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution, followed by the first national elections in 1789, while putting the United States onto a successful path, was not a revolution either.
What that event achieved was the launch of a political system that, while stable, also proved to be structurally rather conservative. That came about as quite a surprise, given the country’s dynamic economic and social systems.
It fits into this pattern that the one great violent conflict in U.S. history, the secession of the Southern states that led to the Civil War, was proclaimed by its proponents as a "Second American Revolution." Tellingly, they openly acknowledged that their purpose was reactionary rather than revolutionary in nature, as it was carried out to preserve the "Peculiar Institution" of slavery.
Where does that leave us? The United States is a nation that has never been tested or transformed by any kind of true domestic revolution. Consequently, its political structure, while genuinely democratic in nature, by now is in many respects more ponderous and leaden than the political structures of most other major industrialized democracies. It certainly is nowhere nearly as dynamic as its economy. Whatever these other countries problems, they did have the advantage of evolving their democratic political structures quite a bit later.
For all the pride taken in American traditions, the country’s political structures are at this stage quite outdated, if not deformed. The latter becomes readily apparent when one looks at such grave distortions as the so-called gerrymandering of electoral districts. The latter, aimed at engineering preferred political outcomes, often look more like cancerous outgrowths rather than recognizable administrative districts. The cancerous role of money in American politics is another such distortion.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the United States of America certainly started out as a democracy, but now exhibits ever more features of a feudalistic regime. The way in which the Republican Party and the Supreme Court celebrate, and fight for upholding, the political structures set up by the founders is a clear indication of that structural backwardness.
All of this suggests that the United States might be ripe for dramatic political change that some of the established powers in the country would consider revolutionary. However, even diehard defenders of the status quo in America cannot claim with any degree of seriousness that the current political structures are responsive to the serious challenges and expectations the country must meet to succeed in the future.