For more than 200 years, the United States of America has been a beacon to the world, and American citizenship has been highly prized. That a government should be of the people, by the people, for the people was an ideal that inspired men and women all over the world. Generations of immigrants proudly took the oath of allegiance, making them citizens. In 2005, more than 600,000 immigrants became naturalized Americans. This Independence Day thousands more will take the oath. Around the world, however, the appeal of the American ideal has declined dramatically. Where a few years ago foreigners distinguished between their dislike for the policies of the current administration and their admiration for our country, today they hold American-style democracy in low esteem. Once a model to emulate, as Michael Ignatieff has written, it has become an example to avoid.
In their recent book, America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, the pollsters Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes report that between 2000 and 2005 there was a significant decline in foreigners admiration for the United States. In 2000, 83 percent of Britons expressed a favorable attitude toward the United States; in 2005 the figure had dropped to 55 percent. In Germany, long a beneficiary of U.S. outreach, the numbers dropped from 78 percent to 41 percent. In Turkey, another cold war ally, the figures were 52 percent and 23 percent respectively. The invasion of Iraq, the war against terror and U.S. unilateralism were certainly occasions for this widespread disfavor, but these developments disclosed deeper antipathy about U.S. institutions and the American character. One of the most surprising is skepticism about American democracy itself.
For many, the effort to impose democracy by force in the Middle East quite properly awakened suspicions of hypocrisy. But according to the two researchers, criticism of American democracy goes deeper. Respondents question the role of money in American politics; they look down on attack advertisements, and they are perplexed by the court-refereed outcome of the 2000 elections. Clearly even countries with longstanding democratic traditions, like Britain and France, have different democratic styles, so they may not be best situated to judge the American performance. Still, when criticism is so widespread, only an unrepentant chauvinist will deny that self-examination is necessary. As Donald W. Shriver contends in Honest Patriots:Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds, genuine love of country requires a critical spirit that is honest about our countrys faults and, when necessary, ready to confess its sins.
Critics do well to point out the power of money in our political system. We are currently engaged in the longest and, at current estimates, the most expensive presidential campaign ever waged. Even though some argue that the Internet may diminish the need for costly television ads, the leading candidates are raising money at an alarming rate. The accelerated primary election calendar demands large campaign staffs, making the candidates less responsive to regional and local issues and generally more scripted. The press continues to do gotcha reporting, focusing on trivial issues like haircuts and old stories like a vast right-wing conspiracy. It builds up candidates for their celebrity appeal and then delights in bringing them down. The basic issue of the election, everyone knows, is the war in Iraq. Yet the choice is simplistically defined: withdraw U.S. troops or not. The complexities go unexplored.
The forces marshaled today against democratic revival in the United States are enormous: big money to feed campaigns and a Supreme Court that opposes campaign finance reform by equating money with free speech, a conflation of news and entertainment enforced by mammoth corporations and the diminishment of hard news in a culture compulsively amusing itself to death. But there is reason to think these obstacles can be overcome, that the people can do better than their institutions.
In the 2004 election, 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, the highest number in years; and on many other indicators of democratic participationsigning petitions, joining boycotts and demonstrationsAmericans score higher than Europeans. Vigorous citizen participation in the current campaign would go a long way to revive democratic government and regain the worlds respect. Of course, that will depend, as in the old days, on getting greater access to the candidates, or at least to their state and local campaign chiefs, their major backers and endorsers. Independence Day 2007 should be an occasion for citizens to begin to reclaim government of the people, by the people, for the people from the forces that threaten to capture and corrupt it.