In 1947, a few months after India gained independence against its will, Winston Churchill remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms which have been tried from time to time”. Independent India took Churchill’s advice and embarked on a messy democratic journey that has persisted to this day. Britain’s democracy has also continued with vigor, although many believe Boris Johnson may not be suitable for the post once held by Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. 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’s easy for me to adopt a view that goes back centuries. After all, I am writing this article to a coffee in the city center of Rome. Time takes on another dimension in this ancient city. In all the talk of 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, though it may not have had the same glamor as its earlier Athenian counterpart.
Sovereignty in Rome is vested in the “Senātus Popolusque Romānus” (SPQR) which means the Senate and People of Rome. The sovereignty of the Senate comes from the people. The senators were only representatives of the citizens, which made the popular sovereign. The popular expressed their sovereignty through the Senate, laying the foundations for representative democracy. At some point Roman democracy got out of hand, a guy 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 that the city of Rome continues to use to this day.
Democracy was and still is fragile
The collapse of the Athenian and Roman republics is still relevant because it tells us that democracy is still fragile. Getting large numbers of people to function together without falling into a cacophonous crowd requires ideas, ideals and institutions. Above all, it requires common sense and compromise, not dogma and diatribes.
In 1776, America’s founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. They took certain “truths for granted.” All men were considered created equal. They had “certain inalienable rights”, of which “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were essential. Furthermore, they drafted a social contract that governments derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In just over 13 years, France broke out into a revolution and the rallying cry of “liberty, equality, fraternity” still animates modern democracies today.
American democracy was never perfect, as the brutal Civil War of 1861-1865 painfully demonstrated. Yet the United States emerged at the end of World War II as the leader of a new world order. The USSR didn’t really play ball and Joseph Stalin tried to create a parallel universe, but the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund were based in the United States, not Europe. The Pax Americana replaced the Pax Britannica and the Marshall Plan left no doubt as to who was the leader of the new world order.
In recent years, American leaders have undone the very order that their ancestors so painstakingly created. It is difficult to determine exactly when this decline of American hegemony began. Was it the disastrous Vietnam War that convinced non-white nations that the United States was a neo-imperial power that would oppose independence for nations of color the same way 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 is recent speech seems to be a Freudian slip that is more my culpa and less faux pas.
Even Nobel laureate Barack Hussein Obama has not proven himself beyond reproach given his indiscriminate drone strikes, his bombings in Libya and his refusal to act when Bashar al-Assad crossed the “line red”. Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for becoming the first man of color to be elected president, but his actual contribution to peace was little.
The Pax Americana began to crumble because President after President, Senator after Senator, Representative after Representative, failed to address the reasons behind the decline of American democracy. Instead, these rulers preached the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world regardless of the fact that the emperor is standing increasingly naked.
The constitution has become a modern-day Bible in which the current versions of the Puritans express absolute belief. None of the philosophical wealth, debates and discussions that led to the constitution seem to exist today. American discourse is polarized, polemical and partisan in a way the country has not seen since the days of the Civil War. Lest Americans forget, the Roman Republic was in a similar situation before its fall.
We the people of the United States
The preamble to the United States Constitution is a good starting point for most Americans, leaders and citizens. It clearly states that “We the people of the United States … ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”. The critical point here is the same as the ancient Romans did in SPQR. Sovereignty belongs to the people.
The constitution derives its legitimacy from the continued affirmation of the people in the document. To treat it as a revelation of divinely ordained wisdom is to defeat everything that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams stood for. The intention of these Founding Fathers was to enshrine the principle of popular sovereignty, the idea that government should reflect the consent and will of the people. This intention seems to have been lost. The will of the people may not be as clear as it was in the days of the freedom struggle, but some form must exist. However, politicians pay little heed to it and use the constitution to maximize their power and/or advance their interests/ideologies.
Sitting in Rome, I followed the recent reversal of Roe vs. Wade with great interest. I write this close to 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 vehemently oppose abortion. For all the supposed avant-garde nature of The good life In Italy, 71% of gynecologists are registered as conscientious objectors. Simply put, these gynecologists are excused from performing abortions for reasons of religious or moral beliefs. Italian women are still going through a tough time getting abortions. 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 like Ireland, Portugal and Spain have this right.
In the United States, the Supreme Court has just set the country back decades by removing the right of women 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 takes to the pulpit and preaches the virtues of democracy over autocracy or theocracy, he will find himself on shaky ground. In recent years, the United States has become a theocracy with different factions claiming their interpretation of the constitution is the purest.
Democrats may cry foul over the Supreme Court’s decision, but they have only themselves to blame. There is an argument to be made and the Conservatives have argued that Roe vs. Wade was a judicial abuse. Abortion is an issue for the legislator. Just as Catholic countries have undergone painful changes in legislation to guarantee the right to abortion, the United States should do the same. Democrats had majorities in both houses of the US Congress, but failed to pass legislation guaranteeing abortion rights. Given that the Republicans managed to fill the Supreme Court with their nominees, it was inevitable that Roe vs. Wade would be overthrown.
Republicans and Democrats have taken refuge behind the constitution lately. The former believe that the constitution makes the right to life absolute and that 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 are like factions of Taliban arguing over the true 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 “seems most likely to affect their safety and happiness.” Many will say that removing the right to abortion from millions of women certainly affects their safety, if not their 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 pass legislation making abortion legal.
(In an age of a global pandemic, social media wars, and explosively changing 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 point of view. The author, a kid from the third culture, 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 recklessly.)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.