When did freedom ring? When did America live up to its ideals? Some would say it still hasn’t, given such things as anti-gay laws, anti-muslim laws, illegal immigration laws, and lack of prisoner rights (including, in some cases, the loss of the right to vote, indefinite detention, and, in a few notable cases, torture).
Yet for most citizens, there is a high level of freedom, and for our country a high level of democracy. But obviously this was not always the case, and certainly not solved by our independence in 1776.
Question: When did American become a full-fledged Democracy?
Let’s take a look at some data, focusing on two modern reports, and from there we’ll work backwards. The first is the respected Democracy Index. In 2010, the United States placed 17 out of 167 nations, and among the 26 nations listed as “full democracies”. The second report, Freedom in the World, listed the United States as “free” in 2010, receiving top marks for political rights and civil liberties.
Now let’s go through their methods for figuring out our rankings, and figure out when we became a viable democracy.
Freedom of the World‘s view of a free democracy:
A competitive, multiparty political system; Year: 1796. This is something we’ve had for many years, at least for the two main parties (it’s currently extremely difficult to win any election on a third party ticket). The last time this was not true is debatable. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Radical Republicans placed rules on southern governments, ruining competition, and allowing the Republicans 12 years of rule. But the true beginning of a competitive, multiparty system began in 1796, when Thomas Jefferson split off with the Federalists to face (and lose to) John Adams as a Democratic-Republican in the second presidential election. The first two elections were won by George Washington, who did not officially belong to a political party.
Universal adult suffrage for all citizens (with exceptions for restrictions that states may legitimately place on citizens as sanctions for criminal offenses); Year: 1965
LBJ Signs the Voting Rights Act
That’s a big exception (by some estimates a 5.3 million exception in the U.S.). In my opinion, universal adult suffrage did not become official until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can argue for 1971 as well, when adults between the ages of 18 and 20 earned the vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment (previously you could be drafted at 18 but not vote until 21). Every year previous to 1965, voting intimidation and ineligibility kept universal suffrage from becoming a reality. Starting with the first election, you were not allowed to vote if you were non-white, female, or if you did not own land. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, led to suffrage for freemen and former slaves, but women still were not allowed the right to vote (not until 1920). By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, “Jim Crow” laws made it tough or nearly impossible for African-Americans in the south to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 righted most of this wrong (the poll tax, another barrier to voting, was declared illegal a year later).
Regularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and the absence of massive voter fraud that yields results that are unrepresentative of the public will; Year: 1965Some gerrymandering aside, most congressional and presidential elections are regularly contested (and can switch parties). For massive voter fraud, some may point to the hyper charges between both parties in recent years. Politically, it’s probably too early in history to confirm the 2000 Presidential Election results as “unrepresentative of the public will” (an extremely close race nonetheless – being a candidate’s brother in charge of disputed ballots). The Presidential Election of 1876 would count, where Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden, even though Tilden had the popular and electoral votes, and was decided along party lines in congress.. Hayes gained the presidency without incident though, in return for ending Reconstruction, which, in turn, led to voter intimidation and fraud throughout the South for nearly a century. Again, 1965 looks to be the key, where African Americans were not long disenfranchised.
Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning; Year: 1800Other than the failed Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which tried to push press to a single side (for the Federalists and John Adams, against Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republican), public access of the (usually two) political parties have been given saturated coverage by the media. Today there are presidential debates (since 1960) and primary elections (through most of the US history party nominees were picked behind closed doors). The two parties views (and sometimes a third or forth) are represented through the media through news and campaign ads. So although the media rights and public access hasn’t always been 100% (still probably not), I’ll pick 1800 as when this clause was fulfilled. When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts failed their cause, and the media were once again free to question, probe, and criticize.
Democracy Index‘s methodology:
“Whether national elections are free and fair”; 1965
Samuel Tilden was robbed
Compared with most other countries, the United States has an excellent record of free and fair elections. This again goes back to the Voting Rights act of 1965, the first year that men and women, no matter their race nor geographic location, could vote in an election, without fear of intimidation or retribution. There has been 11 presidential elections since 1965, and in all but one (cough cough 2000) the candidate who received the most votes won the election. There has been no clear example in the modern era of a candidate with poor voter approval stealing an election. With term limits set in place after Franklin Roosevelt’s term, there’s been an inability of the executive branch to skew multiple elections in their favor.
“The security of voters“; Year: 1965There has been no major successful voter intimidation efforts in recent times. Intimidation probably reached its peak during the Jim Crow years. Yet, in recent times, one can cast a ballot anonymously and successfully without fear of reprisal.
“The influence of foreign powers on government“; Year: 1776This has always been close to zero. Since ousting Great Britain in the American Revolution, our nation is prideful of its independence. Current contenders for influence would include China (who we owe a massive debt to) and Israel (who, for better or worse, has a successful lobbying group), but neither has a solid command over our government. We’ve been close allies at times with Great Britain, who encouraged our entry into World War II (we still took 3 years), and who previously burned down our White House (a bad influence). Currently The United States is the large foreign influence on our allies, never the other way around.
“The capability of the civil servants to implement policies“. Year 1829Minus the obvious congressional gridlock, the Constitution and current government structure allows for successful innovation and change. These policies might be supported by special interest lobbies, but nonetheless, most rules are voted on by congress, implemented by senate-approved members of the executive branch, and overseen by a large judicial branch. There has hardly been a time in American history where our country failed to move forward with new laws and policies. But for the sake of picking a date, I chose 1829, the first year of Andrew Jackson’s administration. Jackson created a powerful executive branch which was able to control policy equal with the other two branches.
So my best estimate of when the United States became a free democracy was in 1965. Our stature only improved in 1971 when we let adults who can be drafted to war also be allowed to vote. We’ve been pretty good ever since. Previous to 1965 we were a “flawed democracy” in the terms set by the Democracy Index. It’s debatable if we were ever in a “hybrid regime” (maybe Lincoln suspending habeus corpus in the Civil War, the Radical Republican’s rule during Reconstruction, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12 years as president). As for being an “authoritarian regime”, the United States, even under British rule, citizens never had it that bad. Slaves and Native Americans, though, had an awful time, so maybe previous to 1861 we were authoritarian. Nevertheless, congrats to our country on over 40 years of relative freedom and democracy!
Although I am the totalitarian ruler of this blog, disagreements, advice, or comments are appreciated.