During the first few months after I arrived in America in early 1992, I was constantly disoriented by the dizzying pace of life in the country. My bewilderment was partly due to the fact that I had spent the previous six years in the Soviet Union, where there was hardly any socio-political agitation. It was a case of going from one extreme to the other. I had come to America on what was supposed to be a short visit, but I became so fascinated with the society that I decided to stay on a bit longer to try to make more sense of it.
As a young boy growing up in Ghana, I was expected to show a high degree of reverence toward people who were older than me. That veneration also applied to anyone in authority, and professionals such as teachers, nurses, and doctors. Generally, I was required to obey, without questioning, whatever instructions I received from those classes of people. It didn’t matter whether their ideas made sense or not—a determination that I mostly couldn’t have made then anyway because I wasn’t sufficiently aware.
I was a foreign student in the Soviet Union, and thus a passive observer of the society and its politics. Whereas Ghanaian society was quite hierarchical but somewhat free, in the Soviet Union, self-determination was almost a completely nonexistent concept. Everyone there, whether they lived in Kaliningrad on the west or Vladivostok on the east and everywhere in between, was mostly subject to the rules that were handed down by the Communist Party leaders in Moscow. Millions of people living on a landmass that stretched 11 time zones from west to east had their collective fate determined by a few men in Moscow.
I spent entire summers in England and the Netherlands, and visited various countries in Western Europe during my college years in the Soviet Union. Consequently, I had ample opportunities to get a taste of life in those free and open societies.
Based on my prior readings and other acquired knowledge, I had expected life in America to closely resemble that of Western Europe. But what I actually experienced in those early days was far beyond anything that I had imagined. As individuals, Americans seemed to take charge of their own lives to an extent that I had not seen in Western Europe. They were a lot more engaged in the process of governance, from local to national level, and appeared to have an insatiable appetite for debate on all manner of issues. Above all, what intrigued me the most was the down-to-earth nature of the people, regardless of what rung of the socio-economic and political ladder they were on.
It wasn’t until after I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, sometime in 1993, that I began to understand what I had been feeling all those months. De Tocqueville, a French court official, and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, had been sent to America in 1831 by the French government to study America’s novel prison system. Instead, upon arrival, the two men spent the next nine months traveling across the country, observing everyday life and documenting their findings, which de Tocqueville published in his book in 1840.
“No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult. A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements,” de Tocqueville wrote in his book. He was amazed by the sheer number of people who were active in public affairs. “All around you everything is on the move. Americans of all ages, all stations of life and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute,” he added. For me, his most important observation was that “the people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe.”
I have lived in America for quite a long time, but I continue to be perplexed by the extent of the responsiveness of its political institutions. America’s governing class seems to constantly anticipate the needs and expectations of the people and acts to meet them, most often without being asked. It is as if, as de Tocqueville observed, the people have put the fear of God in their governors.
Many native-born Americans will probably dispute this assessment, especially given the deep divisions in the country today and the near-total gridlock in Washington. But if they do, it would only be because they have no idea how bad political dysfunction is in other parts of the world.
In their attempts to form their own democratic systems of government, many developing nations simply adopt America’s institution-building template. They pay little attention to the socio-political culture that actually makes its democracy work. In most of these embryonic democracies, citizens just go out to vote in local and national elections and then return to their homes to sit and wait, hoping for the elected leaders to deliver whatever it is they promised during their campaigns. The types of grassroots activism and citizen-vigilance that constantly keep governors accountable in America tend to be completely missing in such societies.
I have come to believe that there are two broad forms of democracy. On one side are “responsive” types, such as America’s, in which there are clearly defined sets of responsibilities, with both the governors and the governed knowing exactly what is expected of them. Then there are the “unresponsive” ones, where, because this delineation of roles is often absent, there is, at best, a weak social contract. The vacuum left is filled with lots of constant barking by the people, but little in terms of bite. The governors have no fear of the people. They know quite well that they can simply shrug their shoulders when things go wrong. There isn’t a whole lot that they feel responsible for.
As I have closely observed American society over the decades, the one thing I constantly wonder about is whether its democratic culture can be replicated elsewhere. De Tocqueville attributed America’s democratic success largely to its national principles of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. Some critics rejected, with some justification, de Tocqueville’s view of American society being free and egalitarian. Blacks were still in bondage in America at the time, and women in general didn’t have many of the rights that White men enjoyed. But in my view, his observations were mostly correct. America has a unique culture of nonstop and rigorous examination of itself, in a constant quest to rectify its flaws.
By and large, Western Europeans seem to have made significant progress in this cultural evolution. Today’s Western Europe is a lot less aristocratic than the one that de Tocqueville and de Beaumont left in 1831. Western European democracies now generally fall in the responsive category.
For the people of any nation who aspire to live under responsive governance systems, the message then is that merely adopting institutional templates from foreign lands and holding elections regularly are simply not enough. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, they should strive to incorporate into their societies some of the cultural norms that make democracies work elsewhere.