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American Democracy: Flaws Across the Pond

February 28, 2012

Frank Puchalska in History Today:

In assessing the character of American government, one recalls the observation by the historian Henry Adams that politics is ‘the systematic organization of hatreds’. As the next presidential election looms the United States seems to have entered another round of partisan deadlock. The Founding Fathers, it is sometimes forgotten, designed the US Constitution in a pre-democratic age before the emergence of a party system, which they feared could lead, in George Washington’s words, to the ‘unjust dominion’ of ‘unprincipled men’. If they were alive today – and as wise as assumed – they might wish to amend the ageing text that has failed to stem the tide of faction and has become an obstacle to good governance.

American party politics is combative. Belligerence is its essence. In Popular Government (1885) Sir Henry Maine, the Victorian jurist and historian, argued that the best justification for the American party system was that it inhibited rivals from killing one another. Maine was just one of a succession of eminent Victorian writers, including John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, James Bryce and William Lecky, for whom American politics and the US Constitution raised universal questions about political behaviour. Their critical analyses, free of American piety, provided trenchant appraisals of that country’s electoral process. Distance lent perspective and much of their criticism remains remarkably prescient today, if only because the US government retains so much of its 18th-century character. (More)

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