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Do We Really Look That Peculiar?

A UK professor brings a foreigner's perspective to "peculiar" U.S. institutions and finds us wanting.

By 1.19.12

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The Founding Fathers vs. The People: Paradoxes in American Democracy
By Anthony King
(Harvard University Press, 242 pages, $35)

Some of the more cherished American articles of faith take a real beating in a new critique of U.S. institutions by a Canadian professor now teaching in Britain. Anthony King pulls no punches in his The Founding Fathers vs. The People: Paradoxes of American Democracy as he squares off against the U.S. system of government.

Foreigners such as himself, he asserts, are amazed, astonished and puzzled by Americans' ability to run a country with such outdated and contradictory mechanisms -- especially the musty, dusty old Constitution and the unelected private club called the Supreme Court. He predicts trouble ahead, and believes the Tea Party may be the first tremor.

King begins with a rather haughty disclaimer: His book is "merely intended to provoke Americans into thinking about aspects of their political system that they themselves might wish to criticize if they did pause and think about them." His text is non-judgmental, he says, but is dotted with qualifiers such as "quite strange," "very curious," and "peculiar."

In a word, King wonders when "they" can't be more liked "us." He also seems to be saying, "Wake up, America!"

King is a professor of government at the University of Essex, Colchester, England, and a media-friendly commentator for British newspapers and the BBC. He has never lived in the United States but he believes a foreigner "may notice important features of a society -- any society -- that the native overlooks." There is a grain of truth in that. I see considerable strangeness in U.S. culture every time I fly in for a visit. Everyone does. I get the same cultural jolts when I go to Germany or Japan.

That said, King rather sheepishly acknowledges that despite a Constitution that seems, in part, undemocratic or even anti-democratic, such as the Electoral College, and "remarkably resistant to change," the "overwhelming majority of Americans … are reasonably content with the [political] system as a whole."

He attacks our alleged conflicts and contradictions by first lecturing the U.S. reader on how other countries do it and second by what can only be described as a taunt -- claiming European institutions are generally more democratic than American ones. These claims will be hard for most Americans to digest even if they manage to swallow his rather laborious argumentation.

Seeking safety in numbers, he quotes extensively from other authors who have criticized the U.S. system, carefully picking books that agree with him and excluding others.

King chooses the potential earthquake metaphor as the unstable force underlying the U.S. system. One of the tectonic plates, he says, is those who believe in constitutional government and who live by an 18th-century document that needs more than amendments -- it needs to be rethought and rewritten.

The primary opposing force is what he calls "radical democracy," a concept "all but unique to America." That strain is partially exemplified by the Tea Party and holds that only "the people" should rule, "not an in intellectual elite, not a body of aristocrats, not some bunch of political appointees, but the people." What matters to these radical democrats, he says, is not an Ivy League education but "knowledge acquired in the school of life."

King believes that the tension in American political life between these two groups accounts for most, though not quite all, the puzzling features of America's current political system. His reasoning, even if flawed, is worth considering as these opposing forces become more active in an election year.

King is no impartial observer, however. In one of his more condescending asides, he asserts that the Tea Party overlooks the fact that one of the principal aims of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 was to create a federal government with greatly enhanced powers. "Most Tea Party activists' manifest ignorance of their own country's early history strikes a foreigner as really rather touching."

More to the point, he believes, "America's two ideological tectonic plates strain constantly against each other, slipping, sliding and grinding, often yielding paradoxical results."

Some of his objections will seem odd to American citizens. He takes issue with restrictions on who can run for president, citing the age minimum of 35 and the proviso that candidates must be born in the United States. He writes approvingly of an essay in the Chicago-Kent Law Review labeling these points as "decidedly un-American," "blatantly discriminatory," and the Constitution's "stupidest provision." By requiring a U.S. birthplace, the talent pool for candidates is substantially reduced, he believes.

Still on the subject of the presidency, King says he looks forward to the day when the U.S. follows the examples of the United Kingdom and Germany and many other liberal democracies in choosing a woman to be their head of government.

He goes on to cite the lack of a mechanism in the Constitution for national referendums, which he interprets as "democracy thwarted in democracy's home." The Founding Fathers, who mistrusted excessive consultation with the people, would be delighted, he adds. On the other hand, maybe national referendums are a bad idea in such a big country, because they would be divisive and create an "enormous body of losers, many of whom… might well feel deeply aggrieved."

The unelected, unaccountable, and secretive Supreme Court gets the harshest treatment, for what he calls its anti-democratic powers. He calls up the outcome of the 2000 Bush-Gore election as a fresh example. Although the uncertainty in the vote count concerned only Florida, "the people of Florida were not given the opportunity -- as they would have been in most other countries -- to vote again. A supremely political decision… was not taken by the people but by unelected judges."

He is "amazed" that the people, "seemingly reverentially," accepted the Court's decision without question.

And yet, to help balance his theme of strangeness in the American system, he concludes with some kind words. "Some Americans, probably the great majority, are relaxed, tolerant, easygoing… comfortable with diversity and have a generally live-and-let-live approach to life."

He even attempts to explain why the 18th century Constitution still sort of works. "It brings together what otherwise might fall or fly apart. It is an object of worship because Americans badly need a solid core of institutions and objects which they all feel that they can worship together."

King's somewhat second-hand opinions on the U.S. system might seem less peculiar if he tried two things: first, compare American shortcomings with British or other European shortcomings. (I live in France and wouldn't know where to start, the strangeness is so omnipresent.) And second, go see how the U.S. hodge-podge actually works. He just might like it enough to do a Christopher Hitchens and take up naturalization.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.