Anti-austerity protests in Greece, May 2010: the fallout from the financial crisis is putting pressure on democracies worldwide © Ais Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson famously declared that the United States would enter the First World War to make the world “safe for democracy.” Yet what exactly democracy meant had no simple answer then, nor since. Was it a matter of free self-governing nations, as Wilson believed? Or was that mere bourgeois democracy, nothing more than a threadbare veil for parasites, profiteers and warmongers? And there were other versions—social, economic and Christian. Stalin offered People’s Democracy, apparently compatible with one-party rule and oversight from the Kremlin. Nazi legal theorists had their own racialised, anti-parliamentary version. These competing conceptions of democracy had one thing in common: they were really arguments about what it ought to be, trouncing actually existing democracies in the name of an ideal.
But had this ideal ever been realised? Some said it had, finding genealogies that stretched back to the dear old ancient Greeks. Americans were especially prone to this historical industriousness and from Wilson’s day onwards newly-minted “western civilisation” courses taught generations of young men (and later women) across the country that they had been entrusted with Hellenic ideals of freedom. By the time one more kind of democracy, the so-called liberal version, implanted itself in American discourse (spreading like wildfire from the 1970s onwards), it had become axiomatic that in identifying itself with spreading these values worldwide, the US was remaining true to its founding ideals.
Except that it wasn’t. A moment’s perusal confirms the absence of any reference to democracy in either the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution. In colonial America, democracy was hardly encountered at all and when it was, as Francis Dupuis-Déri shows in his timely new history of the word, Démocratie: Histoire Politique d’un Mot (Lux, £20), it was with extreme ambivalence. The 19th century was when the term began to be used more widely, as a slur as often as something positive, and it appears to have been only after 1900 that it became ubiquitous. Alexis de Tocqueville, in associating the US with democracy, was essentially applying a European—indeed in many ways a peculiarly French—term to the American context. In the process he created a new political myth that obscured the ambivalence of…