In 1947, a few months after India won independence against his wishes, Winston Churchill remarked, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Independent India took Churchill’s advice and embarked on a messy democratic journey that has persisted to today. British democracy has also carried on robustly even though many believe that Boris Johnson may not befit the office once occupied by Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Both these democracies and indeed any modern democracy have had their struggles but it is important to remember that it took centuries of blood, sweat and tears for democracy to come into being.
It is easy for me to take a view that goes back centuries. After all, I am writing this piece at a caffè in the city center of Rome. Time takes on a different dimension in this ancient city. In all the talk about Caesars, circuses and empire, few remember that Rome began as a republic. The Roman Republic (509-27 BCE) was one of the world’s earliest democracies even though it might not have had the same glamor as its earlier Athenian counterpart.
Sovereignty in Rome vested in the “Senātus Popolusque Romānus,” (SPQR) which means the Senate and the People of Rome. The Senate’s sovereignty came from the people. Senators were merely representatives of citizens and this made the populus sovereign. The populus expressed their sovereignty through the Senate, setting the foundation for representative democracy. At some point, Roman democracy degenerated, a chap called Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and emperors came to rule the roost. Yet even these emperors continued to rule in the name of SPQR, an abbreviation the city of Rome continues to use till this day.
Democracy was and still is fragile
The collapse of the Athenian and the Roman republics is still relevant today for it tells us that democracy is always fragile. Getting a large number of people to function together without descending into a cacophonous mob requires ideas, ideals and institutions. Above all, it requires common sense and compromise, not dogma and diatribe.
In 1776, America’s Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. They held some “truths to be self-evident.” All men were seen as created equal. They had “certain unalienable Rights,” of which” Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were key. Also, they drew up a social contract as per which governments derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In a little over 13 years, France erupted in revolution and the rallying cry of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” animates modern democracies to this day.
American democracy was never perfect as the brutal civil war from 1861 to 1865 painfully demonstrated. Yet the US emerged at the end of World War II as the top dog underpinning a new global order. The USSR did not quite play ball and Joseph Stalin tried to create a parallel universe but the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were based in the US, not in Europe. Pax Americana replaced Pax Britannica and the Marshall Plan left no doubts as to who was the leader of the new global order.
In recent years, American leaders have been chipping away at the very order their forebears created so painstakingly. It is hard to precisely pinpoint when this decline in American hegemony began. Was it the disastrous Vietnam War that convinced non-white nations that the US was a neo-imperial power that would oppose independence of colored nations in the same way that it opposed desegregation at home? Or was it George W. Bush going to war against Iraq despite the opposition of allies like France and Germany as well as the United Nations? Bush’s recent speech seems to be a Freudian slip that is more mea culpa and less faux pas.
Even Nobel laureate Barack Hussein Obama did not turn out to be squeaky clean given his indiscriminate drone strikes, bombings in Libya and refusal to act when Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line.” Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize for becoming the first colored man to be elected president but his actual contribution to peace was precious little.
Pax Americana has started crumbling because president after president, senator after senator, representative after representative has failed to engage with the reasons underpinning the decline of American democracy. Instead, these leaders have preached the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world without paying heed to the fact that the emperor increasingly stands naked.
The constitution has become a modern-day Bible in which today’s versions of Puritans express absolute belief. None of the philosophical richness, debate and discussion that led to the constitution seem to exist today. American discourse is polarized, polemical and partisan in a way that the country has not experienced since the days of the Civil War. Lest Americans forget, the Roman Republic was in a similar situation before it fell.
We the People of the United States
The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States is a good place to start for most Americans, leaders and citizens. It clearly states that “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The critical point here is the same as the one ancient Romans made in SPQR. Sovereignty rests with the people.
The constitution draws its legitimacy from the continuing affirmation of the people in the document. To treat it as a revelatory of divinely ordained wisdom is to go against everything the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams stood for. The intention of these Founding Fathers was to inscribe the principle of popular sovereignty, the idea that government must reflect the consent and the will of the people. That intention seems to have been lost. The will of the people may no longer be as clear as during the days of the freedom struggle but some form of it must exist. However, politicians pay little heed to it and use the constitution to maximize their power and/or push their interests/ideologies.
Sitting in Rome, I have followed the recent overturning of Roe v Wade with much interest. I am writing this a stone’s throw away from the Vatican. The Catholic Church still wields immense power in Italy and I can see its influence around me even as I type this. The Pope and the Catholic Church still virulently oppose abortion. For all the supposed avant garde nature of la dolce vita Italy, 71% of gynecologists are registered as conscientious objectors. Simply put, these gynecologists are exempted from performing abortions for reasons of religious or moral beliefs. Italian women still go through a harrowing time to get an abortion. Despite the overwhelming social power of the Catholic Church and centuries of conservative culture, Italian women still have the right to choose. Today, women in Catholic countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain have that right.
In the US, the Supreme Court has just pushed the country decades behind by taking away women’s right to choose. Abortion is no longer a right. States like Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Utah have de facto banned abortion. Many other states are following suit. When Joe Biden stands on the pulpit and preaches the virtues of democracy vis-à-vis autocracy or theocracy, he will find himself on thin ground. In recent years, the US is becoming a theocracy with different factions claiming their interpretation of the constitution is the purest.
Democrats can cry foul about the Supreme Court decision but they have only themselves to blame. There is an argument to be made and conservatives have been making it that Roe v Wade was judicial overreach. Abortion is an issue for the legislature. Just as Catholic countries went through painful changes in legislation to guarantee abortion rights, so should the US. Democrats have had majorities in both houses of the US Congress but have failed to bring in legislation to guarantee abortion rights. Given the fact that the Republicans have succeeded in packing the Supreme Court with their nominees, it was inevitable that Roe v Wade would be overturned.
Both Republicans and Democrats have been taking refuge behind the constitution in recent times. The former believe that the constitution makes the right to life absolute and every human fetus has the right to life. The latter believe that the constitution gives women the right to choose abortion because it is their body that goes through pregnancy. Both of them are like factions of the Taliban arguing about the real interpretation of their prophet’s words instead of reflecting the will of the people.
The Preamble gives people the right to change any form of government that “shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Many would argue that taking away abortion rights of millions of women certainly effects their safety, if not happiness. If Biden and his fellow Democrats believe in the Preamble and “We the People of the United States” then it might be a good idea to fight on a ticket to bring in legislation to make abortion legal.
(In an era of a global pandemic, social media wars and explosively evolving geopolitics, the human spirit and its expression have suffered the most. With apologies to Edward Morgan Forster, “Rome, with a View” is a view of humanity from an interesting perspective. The author, a third culture kid, gathers from his various perches in the eternal city of Rome — Caput Mundi, the capital of the ancient world — the whispers of wisdom through the ages imperfectly and perhaps even unwisely.)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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