The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book)
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Busboy Productions, Inc.
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-446-53268-1
Chapter OneDemocracy Before America
It is often said that America "invented" democracy. This view is, ofcourse, an understatement; America invented not only democracy, butfreedom, justice, liberty, and "time-sharing." But representativedemocracy is unquestionably our proudest achievement, the creationmost uniquely our own, even if the rest of the Western world wouldhave come up with the idea themselves by the 1820s. So why, then,has participation in this most wondrous system withered?
As heirs to a legacy more than two centuries old, it isunderstandable why present-day Americans would take their owndemocracy for granted. A president freely chosen from a wide-openfield of two men every four years; a Congress with a 99% incumbencyrate; a Supreme Court comprised of nine politically appointed judgeswhose only oversight is the icy scythe of Death- all these reveal asystem fully capable of maintaining itself. But our perfectdemocracy, which neither needs nor particularly wants voters, is ararity. It is important to remember there still exist many otherforms of government in the world today, and that dozens of foreigncountries still long for a democracy such as ours to be imposed onthem.
To regain our sense of perspective and wonder, we must take abroader historical view, looking beyond America's relatively recentsuccess story to examine our predecessors and their adorablefailures. In this chapter, we will briefly explore the evolution ofan idea, following the H.M.S. Democracy on her dangerous voyagethrough the mists of time, past the Straits of Monarchy, survivingHurricane Theocracy, then navigating around the Cape of Good FeudalSystem to arrive, battered but safe, at her destined port-of-call:Americatown.
Early Man: More Animal Than Political
The human race is by nature brutal, amoral, unreasonable andself-centered, but for the first few hundred thousand years of ourexistence as a species, we were way too obvious about it. Primitiveculture centered on survival of the individual and, occasionally,survival of someone the individual might want to reproduce with (see1981's harrowing documentary Caveman. Civic institutions werenon-existent, as was debate, which would appear later after theinvention of the frontal lobe. For prehistoric man the rule of law,such as it was, could best be summed up by the seminal caseMarbury's Head v. Madison's Rock.
Early man lived this tenuous Darwinian nightmare for an age or two,until a peculiar thing happened: The unfittest decided they wouldn'tmind surviving either. The feeble and weak realized that without agood plan they weren't going to make it out of the Stone Age to seethe wonder that was clay. Alone, they were mammoth meat. Together,they would become a force with a chance to see the day when theirchildren's children would be only 75% covered in hair. From thesenoble impulses, the groundwork for the first civilizations was laid.
Athens: Our Big Fat Greek Forerunners
Ancient Greece is widely credited with creating the world's firstdemocracy. It would be a worthy endeavor to travel back in time tothe feta-strewn shores of fifth-century B.C. Athens and ask Plato todefine democracy, and not only to make money gambling on Olympicsresults that we, being from the future, would already know. Platowould tell us, in that affectionate but non-sexual way of his, that"democracy" is a Greek word combining the roots for "people"("demos-") and "rule" ("-kratia"). In Greek democracy, politicalpower was concentrated not in the hands of one person, or even asmall group of people, but rather evenly and fairly distributedamong all the people, meaning every John Q. Publikopolous couldplay a role in Athenian government. The main legislative body, theAssembly, was comprised of no less than the first 6,000 citizens toarrive at its meetings-and bear in mind, no saving seats. Jury dutywas considered an honor to be vied for. Membership in most othercivic institutions, including the Supreme Court, was chosen ... bylot! Imagine a system in which anyone could wind up serving on theSupreme Court. Anyone. Think about your own family. Friends. Theguys you knew in college who would eat dog feces for ten dollars.Now picture one of them as your randomly chosen Chief Justice, andyou'll appreciate just how fucked-up this system was.
Compared with American democracy, the Athenian version seemssimplistic, naive, and gay. Transcripts of early Athenian policydebates reveal a populace moved more by eloquence and rationalitythan demagogues and fear-mongering. Thankfully, this type of humanegovernance wasn't allowed to take root. Athens's great experimentended after less than two centuries, when, in 338 B.C., Philip ofMacedon's forces invaded the city, inflicting on its inhabitants theeternal fate of the noble and enlightened: to be brutally crushed bythe armed and dumb.
Rome: The First Republicans
The fall of Athens was followed by the emergence, overnight, ofRome. At first glance its people appear to have enjoyed a system ofrepresentative government similar to ours. True, behind its façadeof allegedly "representative" officials lurked a de facto oligarchyruled by entrenched plutocrats. But the similarities don't endthere. In fact, the Founding Fathers borrowed many of their ideasfrom the Roman model, including its bicameral legislature, itsemphasis on republicanism and civic virtue, and its Freudianfascination with big white columns.
However, there was very little real democracy in Rome. While theSenate theoretically represented the people, in reality its wealthymembers covertly pursued pro-business legislation on behalf of suchmilitary-industrial giants as JavelinCorp, United Crucifix, and acartel of resource-exploiting companies known as Big Aqueduct. Theyeven monopolized the most notorious aspect of Roman life,instituting an orgy policy that can literally be described as"trickle-down."
Vomitoriums aside, Rome's biggest contribution to Americangovernment was probably its legal system, which codified keyconcepts like equal protection, "innocent until proven guilty," andthe right to confront one's accusers. These very same issues wouldlater form the basis of both the Bill of Rights and a mind-numbingquantity of Law and Order scripts. But by the time of Rome's hugemillennium celebration marking the beginning of O A.D., the faintlight of Roman democracy was all but extinguished. The Republic hadgiven way to Empire. The only voting to speak of took place in theColosseum and was generally limited to a handful ofdisembowelment-related issues. In time, the Empire itself fell, ashistory teaches us all empires inevitably must. Its most enduringlegacy: a numerical system that allowed future generations to moreeasily keep track of Super Bowls.
The Magna Carta: Power to the Extremely Wealthy People
And then, darkness. For more than 1,000 years democracy disappearedfrom the European scene. The period instead saw the blossoming of anexciting array of alternate forms of government, such as monarchy,absolute monarchy, kingship, queenhood, and three different types ofoppression (religious/ethnic/"for shits and giggles"). As forindividual liberty, "innocent until proven guilty" was rapidlysupplanted by a more aggressive law-and-order approach bettercharacterized as "guilty until proven flammable."
Democracy had disappeared. The people needed a champion, and as isusually the case, the obscenely rich rode to the rescue. In 1215,England's wealthy barons refused to give King John the money heneeded to wage war unless he signed the Magna Carta. The documentcodified that no man was above the law. Unfortunately for thepeasant class, it did little to address how many were below it.Startlingly ahead of its time, this extraordinary document had aprofound effect on people and continues to shapetwenty-first-century views on topics as diverse as escheat, socage,burage, novel disseisin, and the bailiwicks of Gerard of Athee. Buteven more importantly, the Magna Carta set a powerful precedent forour own Founding Fathers: There was no more powerful means ofsafeguarding individual liberty than a vaguely worded manifestoinked in inscrutable cursive on dilapidated parchment.
The Magna Carta served as a wake-up call that Europe would be forcedto answer-in about five hundred years. For Lady Democracy, havinglain dormant for more than a millennium, had risen from its slumberonly to stretch its arms, reach for the clock, and groggily set thesnooze bar for "The Enlightenment."
The 17th and 18th Centuries: Enlightening Strikes
Though a promising development for democracy, the Magna Carta wasmostly ignored as the world plunged into what would be known as theDark Ages. It was an apt title for an era when amoebic dysentery wasconsidered the good kind of dysentery. Oppression and high mortalityrates seemed ready to swallow what remained of mankind, when throughthe darkness emerged the light that would be its salvation: Reason.It began slowly. "Hey, what if we stop storing the corpses in thedrinking water and see if that makes any difference to our health?"From there, it gathered momentum. Soon, all conventional wisdom,from the shape of the Earth to whether the ruling class could haveyour hut burned and your organs removed because they thought youcaused an eclipse, was up for grabs. This last question provedespecially pertinent for the future of democracy and ushered in anera known as the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, would finallyprovide democracy with its philosophical underpinnings. The 17th and18th centuries produced a wave of prominent thinkers espousingpolitical systems based on what they called "the social contract."Government, they theorized, was a sort of legal agreement betweenthe rulers and the ruled, the terms of which were binding on bothparties. It was a groundbreaking theory. All they needed now wassome country dumb enough to try it before the King found out and hadthem all drawn and quartered.
Democracy needed a fresh start-hearty and idealistic champions whowould strike out for a new world, willing to risk everything for theprinciples of equality, liberty, justice ... and slaves. We'd needsome slaves and guns. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. A newworld awaited.