The Three Cardinal Facts of American Democracy

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I opened The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, by David Stasavage, of New York University (Princeton, 2020), hoping to find insights on the prospects for democracy in Russia and China. And so I did, in the form of his observation that autocracy is a very robust form of government if the state gets a jump on democracy. I also closed the book with a transformed understanding of American history.

The author occupies a lofty position at NYU, an entrepreneurial university with a reputation for paying top dollar for star players. Among the economists on its roster, for example, are Thomas Sargent, Michael Spence and Paul Romer. Stasavage is a clear writer and a deep thinker who is writing towards the end of thirty or forty years of remarkable advances in the social sciences. Previous books include Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe (2016); States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities (2011); and Public Debt and the Birth of the Democratic State: France and Great Britain 1688-1789 (2003), My hunch is that Decline and Rise will prove to be a classic of the modern literature of government.

It was the concluding paragraph of the chapter “Democracy – and Slavery – in America” that reshaped the way I understand the arc of American history:

[U]nlike other countries that eventually made the transition [to broad manhood suffrage] modern democracy in the United States would for very long remain incomplete – it would not be for 350 years after 1619 that African-Americans would enjoy the same voting rights as others.  This was not a conquest that occurred as the result of a single watershed moment; it was instead the result of what some scholars have called a long and unsteady march.  Ultimately the achievement of the vote by African-Americans points to another important property of American democracy; precisely because it espouses to make political participation universal, within this form of government the excluded have a powerful argument for demanding the same rights as others.  Early democracy lacked this feature.

Like any daily newspaper, The New York Times makes occasional mistakes. Most definitely not among them was the essay for which Nikole Hannah-Jones was recognized earlier this year with a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, for her introduction to the paper’s 1619 Project.  I was raised on the story of 1620, the Plymouth Colony and all that, as our national birth date. (The 1607 story of Jamestown and the 1630 story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony seemed less relevant when I was eight.) I have now lived long enough in America to understand that the introduction of commercial slavery to the British colonies of North America in 1619 is an equally salient fact.

I grew up, too, on stories of the Civil War, and gradually came to understand the deep insight of Yale historian David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002). The stagy annual joint encampments of veterans of the armies of the Union and the Confederacy were a particularly potent means of once again relegating African-Americans to second-class citizenship. The naming of major Army bases for Confederate heroes was very much part of this process.

Not until Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy appeared in 1944 was the paradox of racial inequality despite the bold assertions of the Declaration of Independence so thoroughly illuminated as to become inescapable. Twenty tumultuous years were required to resolve the contradiction, at least in principle, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the third cardinal fact of American democracy, which, Stasavage identifies with an archer’s accuracy, along with 1607/1620/1630 and 1619.

This is my third attempt to convey the reasons for my enthusiasm for Fall and Rise. It is, I believe, a brilliant book.  I failed again, mostly for reasons of eye fatigue.  Back next week with reduced ambitions.