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When I was in junior high, my history teacher planted a trick question in a pop quiz that made a lasting impression on me. He asked us to name the oldest democracy in the world. Sadly, not one of us had a clue, and undoubtedly that was the point. He wanted to make sure we got the message, so rather than bloviating about it to closed ears, he dropped this bombshell in a test. For those of you who don’t know, the answer is the United States of America – a possibility none of us 13-year-olds had even considered. We protested: “but the United States is so new compared to the rest of the world. How could that possibly be?”

We soon learned that countries come and go, especially – it turns out – democracies. They seem to be particularly vulnerable, and it takes an awful lot to keep them functioning. And since we don’t have a ruling monarch, it falls to the citizens themselves to do the work. This makes democracies very high maintenance, and prone to periods not exactly known for their productivity.

Over the past 240 years we seem to have forgotten that. We have come to believe that whoever is in power can handle it. And this complacency has led to the lowest voting turnout record of any democracy in the world (among other things)! This is a stunning fact in itself.

No matter which end of the political spectrum you are on, or one of the nearly extinct breed we used to call moderates, you have to be discouraged about how the oldest democracy in the world is conducting itself these days (and worse yet, how it looks to the world community, both foes and allies).

As a historian who has spent a considerable amount of time studying the painful birth of this country, I am probably blessed to be able to take more of a long view than most Americans. Still, a helluva lot of people have died in the past 240 years to create and preserve that democracy – and I too am dismayed.

I recently read a book about that formative period of time between winning the Revolution and actually launching all the gears of self-government (The Perils of Peace – America’s Struggle for Survival after Yorktown by Thomas Fleming, 2007). Despite its faults, I learned a great deal, including the desire of our founding fathers to establish a democracy for the modern era (as opposed to copying the blueprint of the world’s only previously successful democracy: ancient Greece). They weren’t perfect and they couldn’t see 200 years into the future, but they did a remarkable job under the circumstances.

I was particularly struck by the fact that they had such faith that a democracy could succeed in a world full of aristocracies and dictatorships. Perhaps one clue is that the United States did not become an actual country until it had miraculously won a lengthy war (1775-1783) against the combined forces of the best armies in the world. And it took six more years to organize an actual presidential election.

Yet they – and we – count the beginning of this country from the date of our Declaration of Independence (1776) instead of when the first president took office (1789). One of the reasons is that this American idea had been percolating for a long time, and most folks on this continent already considered themselves to be Americans by the time events reached the boiling point. Partly because of the terrific distance from the mother country, and partly from feeling neglected – and then abused – by England, Americans had learned to be resourceful. The whole process (over 100 years) created a very different people from those still living in England. This evolution had become so complete by the 1760’s that we had already started to think of ourselves as different, more self-reliant, and what did we need those Brits for, anyway? To make matters worse, the British – and more specifically, the king – didn’t have a clue, and treated them – us – as British subjects and not American citizens, as we viewed ourselves.

Here’s one of the things we in the 21st century have so much trouble getting our heads around: most of the founding fathers were adamantly opposed to political parties, and made no provisions for them in the Constitution. Our birthing process was so long and arduous that most were ready to put the acrimony behind them. However, without the leveling presence of George Washington (many would have gladly appointed him King and be done with it, which would have negated the whole idea), there’s no telling where we would have wound up. Nevertheless, very contentious parties had already formed before his second term ended. Mud was slung in abundance, names were called and scandals were revealed – and we were off and running!

Yes, Democracy is messy. It’s inefficient. It’s practically all the things its critics call it. And sadly, the dissolution of an entire political party (which in the current political climate seems distinctly possible) has happened before, and with far-reaching consequences. I refer you to the election of 1860:

There were so many things going on in 1860 that it can and has filled volumes. But in addition to the obvious sectional differences which were enshrined in the Declaration itself, the Whig Party had grown away from its base and was well on the way out before Lincoln became the second presidential nominee of the fledgling Republican Party. The Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions, and those who weren’t satisfied with these candidates threw in a fourth candidate just for good measure. Somehow the man who is universally regarded as the best president we ever had, came out on top, and managed to pull the nation through its biggest crisis.

So if you think things are bad right now, you’re right. But it isn’t unprecedented. And I haven’t even mentioned hanging chads, dead voters somehow casting ballots, or contested elections being decided in the House of Representatives or Supreme Court.

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