Theory & Science (2003)

ISSN: 1527-5558

The Big Fib: Democratic Ideals in an Unprincipled World 1

Timothy McGettigan
Department of Sociology
Colorado State University-Pueblo
The Centre for Social Studies 2


In principle, democracy figures among the grandest of human aspirations. However, in practice, the democratic system in the United States has fallen far short of its ideals. This paper analyzes the dislocation between democratic ideals and practices. While organizational requisites impose unavoidable logistical limitations, democracy's most acute failures tend to result from power brokers who tell big fibs about the distribution of power.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (Declaration of Independence).


Despite the exuberant idealism in its foundational documents, democracy in the United States has fallen short of such high-minded principles. For example, the very documents that promised to institute a government of, by, and for the people also freely endorsed odious manifestations of social inequality. Given that over 200 years hence, many of those inequalities remain in place, some critics argue that American idealism is nothing more than a smokescreen clouding the ulterior motives of a profoundly hypocritical political vision (Chomsky, 1996, 1999; Churchill, 2003; Mills, 1956).

On the other hand, one can also contend that logistical difficulties preempt democracy. According to the “iron law of oligarchy” (i.e., sociology's “one law”), populist-minded individuals might organize modest, idealized democratic forums for short periods of time (McGettigan, 1997, 1999, 2001a, 2002). However, organizational logistics mandate that enduring group projects must inexorably yield to more organizationally resilient oligarchies (Michels, 1959; Weber, 1968). Consequently, as a result of all its failures, its organizational improbability, and some of its dubious original strategies, it appears as though democracy has been little more than a big fib, i.e., democracy is a political system that has never earnestly practiced its principles.

Yet, if we take into account some of the populist democratic modifications (Branch, 1989; Faber, 1967; Marcus, 2002) that have been orchestrated over the lifespan of US democracy, one might argue that democracy's unrealized principles serve as a “star to steer by”: heavenly, unattainable ideals that, nevertheless, shed sufficient light to orient the navigation of a wayward polity. However, if that is the case, then isn't it a fib (of sorts) for the US to violently impose its imperfect political system around the globe in the name of democracy—especially if the most fundamental component of democracy is a mandate from the people?

Playing With Fire

From its inception, democracy in the United States has been associated with struggles to uplift the downtrodden. As the story goes, European immigrants braved the New World in order to escape Old World persecution. The bravado inspired by conquering a “primitive” continent emboldened colonists' disdain for European subjugation. Discontent simmered for decades until widespread clamor for political independence erupted.

As a means of justifying political rebellion, colonists invoked the theme of universal human rights, i.e., “all men are created equal.” Idealistic as this may seem, demanding universal rights served a variety of practical purposes. One of the more loathsome features of colonial subjugation was the colonists' degraded social status. British commoners occupied stature that was indisputably secondary to the snooty aristocracy. However, even Britain's second class commoners had recourse to Parliament. Despite vigorous protest, King George III denied American colonists that invaluable privilege. The king had financial and egotistical reasons for turning a deaf ear toward America.

In the absence of Parliamentary representation, King George III could gouge Americans mercilessly. While outraged howls decrying taxation without representation died on the ocean winds, his majesty laughed all the way to the bank. The king conceded no more than an indignant scowl at the American upstarts. After all, a bunch of remote, second rate commoners had no business making demands of His Royal Highness. Lest anyone should forget, King George III governed by the grace of divine right, i.e., the ideological presumption that God had authorized the monarchy. As such, challenging the king was akin to contesting the will of God. Yielding to the disputatious colonial rabble would constitute an insupportable violation of the king's sacred demesne. King George III would brook no such opposition: God made kings to rule, and subjects to bow before them. The king resolved to dispense with Americans as the inferiors that they were, and, from his vantage, they would remain.

Lines in the Sand

When it became clear that King George III would not stoop to elevate their social status, the colonists hatched a radically new political ploy: they made an ideological end run by asserting that, objectively speaking, the king merited a demotion. Since it is an empirical fact that all humans are biologically similar, the colonists rebutted the king's claim to divine fabrication by asserting the equality of all human kind. In the New World, men could claim birthright to nothing save equality.

The colonists endeavored to resolve two major problems by making this earth-shaking claim. On the one hand, advocating the equality of all men undermined the king's entitlement to abscond with colonists' property. Alternately, the goal of equality established that every colonist had something to gain by opposing the king.

By demoting the king, the colonists scorned the notion that aristocrats were somehow embodied of finer stuff than the average commoner. Indeed, democracy promised to invert the old aristocratic power pyramid: “the people” would ascend to a more venerable status, whereas political leaders would descend to the manageable rank of public servants. No king could countenance such license. Fortunately for the colonists, King George III could spare only a token military force to quell the American rebellion. Thus, in the end, the rebels managed to secure independence from England and set course for a new political horizon.

A Victory for All Men?

The egalitarian principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence served admirably as a motivating force in the war for independence. However, the process of transforming democratic ideals into a workable political scheme created a whole new set of problems. Indeed, the first attempt at nationhood under the Articles of Confederation (1781) failed after only a few years. Ultimately, the Constitution (1789) laid the groundwork for a more lasting union. However, this more enduring document sacrificed a number of core democratic principles.

One need look no further than Article 1, Section Two of the Constitution to discover a deeply troubling irony. While the Declaration of Independence augured a principled pursuit of democratic ideals, the Constitution incorporated unambiguous restrictions on human rights.

Article. I. Section. 2. Clause 3: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (Constitution of the United States)

In the calculation of valid constituencies, the numbers of people who would “count” were clearly restricted. Non-free persons would, at best, qualify for only a fraction of representation, three fifths. In truth, under this clause African slaves could hope for no real representation. Instead, the purpose of counting slaves was to augment the number of representatives working on behalf of slave-holders, not slaves. Clearly, such an officially fractionated valuation of certain groups attests to a profound departure from the principles of universal human rights. In the fledgling United States, some would be more equal than others (Orwell, 1946).

Additionally, in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, Native Peoples are not numbered among those who “count” because they are excluded as taxpayers. This, I argue, more than any other passage in the Constitution crystallizes the similarities between Natives and the formerly disenfranchised colonists. The colonists had revolted against King George III precisely because he had expropriated their property while denying access to channels of legitimate political representation. Yet, in spite of American outrage over the king's injustices, the United States felt justified in appropriating lands occupied by Native Peoples without suffering to grant Natives formal access to the political system. Thus, the injustices imposed on colonists in the name of aristocracy—that had inspired a revolution—were, in turn, visited on American Natives, but in the second instance, in the name of democracy. Curious.

In a polity propounding the universal notion that “all men are created equal” such duplicity is difficult to fathom. However, the key to resolving this mystery lies in reading the above phrase with emphasis on the second term rather than the first, i.e., “all MEN are created equal.” Quite simply, political reality in the United States has always been based on a qualified, rather than universal, interpretation of democratic ideals. Democratic rights for some have implied misery for many others (Baraka, 2002; Berlin, 2003; Churchill, 1997, 2003; Collins, 1991; Diamond, 1997; Flexner and Fitzpatrick, 1996; Frazier, 2001; hooks, 1992, 1994).

That is, in a context wherein democratic principles are interpreted to mean that all MEN are equal, one can also impute the corollary that all “non-men” are presumed inferior. In one sense, such twin assumptions are sensible and necessary. All nations must incorporate boundary decisions into their organizational designs. For example, democratic principles in the United States apply to the Homo sapiens residing within its geographical confines, while other species are largely exempt: except in rare cases (Abbot, 2002), atrocities against non-human species, such as plants or bacteria, do not result in criminal prosecution. Human political systems are intended to privilege human beings, while conferring secondary status upon non-humans. Of course, the process of distinguishing humans from non-humans can often be contentious (Gould, 1996).

Just as non-humans are often considered less praiseworthy than humans, rationales have been concocted to assert that various human groups merit differing degrees of regard (Gould, 1996; Herrnstein and Murray, 1994; Laquer, 1980). Despite the illogic and injustice of prejudice, many inhabitants of the United States have been labeled sub-human and, as a direct result of these malevolent misapprehensions, have experienced horrific abuse (Baraka, 2002; Berlin, 2003; Churchill, 1997; Diamond, 1997; Dray, 2002; Du Bois, 1997; Flexner and Fitzpatrick, 1996; Frazier, 2001).

Thus, the Constitution denigrated and marginalized enormous numbers of people because, as inferiors, they were not worthy of membership in a democratic society. After all, democracy was for men. It certainly was not for women, who were treated as little more than pieces of property until the passage of the 19 th Amendment in 1920. Nor was democracy intended for “merciless Indian Savages” (Declaration of Independence, 1776) who, having been excluded, were deemed fit only for extermination as sub-human enemies of American democracy. Finally, the authors of the Constitution went so far as to quantify the official abasement of Africans (e.g., “three fifths”).

The benefits of sanctioning limited membership in the democracy were enormous. By subjugating women, males eliminated half the competition for valuable opportunities. Also, male member-citizens of the USA created a legal framework within which to abscond with the riches of a continent occupied long before the arrival of Europeans. Finally, many US member-citizens also harnessed Africans to the backbreaking task of harvesting profit from land appropriated under the auspices of democratizing the New World.

Profitable as these policies were, such forthright dehumanization should have been anathema in the US. That is, the ideology of divine right had been sustained on the detestable logic of rank-based merit. In their prolonged struggle with King George III, the colonists demonstrated highly attuned sensitivities to the vile injustices of prejudice and property theft. Yet, although Americans had waged war to repudiate the loathsome pretensions of European aristocracy, they were content to invent and exploit their own categorical social privileges. While idealists might struggle with such barefaced hypocrisy, political realists would not quibble. Indeed, there are arguments which suggest that, despite the rhetoric, the American Revolution was neither a battle among idealists, nor for ideals. As is the case with many wars, the American Revolution was a winner-take-all power contest.

The Politics of Illusion

One of the more cynical interpretations of the American Revolution is that of an aspiring middle class employing the rhetoric of democracy primarily for the purposes of class ascendancy. That is, a very specific group of people (i.e., propertied, Christian, heterosexual, European men) orchestrated the American Revolution to get the British aristocracy off their backs. With the aristocracy out of the way, democracy prevailed, but only for the distinguished minority who qualified as full-fledged citizens.

As one might expect, the leaders of post-colonial America devised the polity to serve the interests of its “members.” However, because membership in the new democracy was severely restricted, a relatively small clique accrued substantial benefits at the expense of the vast majority—and, in spite of centuries of social change, legacies of this inequality endure to the present (Armas, 2003; Baraka, 2002; Barrett, 1999; Chomsky, 1996; Churchill, 1997, 2003; Collins, 1991; Diamond, 1997; hooks, 1992, 1994; Marcus, 2002; Weiss, 1999; Wolf, 1991; Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1998). Notwithstanding the official exclusion of the majority population, member-citizens could claim that by protecting the integrity of the Constitution they were “fighting for democracy.” Certainly, for those who have been denied member-citizen status, such claims are transparent fibs. However, for beneficiaries, the phrase “fighting for democracy” incorporates an invaluable double entendre, i.e., fighting for the interests of a political system that is labeled “democratic,” but, crucially, a political system in which universal democratic ideals take a back seat to the preservation of members' interests. Thus, as long as its member-citizens' interests are served in the “fight for democracy,” the US can cloak the most destructive social policies (e.g., slavery, genocidal extermination of Native Americans, disenfranchising and objectifying women, super-exploitation of international migrant laborers, slaughtering Iraq's innocent inhabitants for the purposes of replacing an intransigent tyrant with a US-friendly regime [Gordon and Kifner, 2003], etc.) with a mantle of democratic virtue (Bush, 2003). While the rhetoric of fighting for democracy permits the US to claim the moral high ground in the underhanded realm of realpolitik (Machiavelli, 1996), it also helps to legitimize US ascendancy as the world's only superpower (McGettigan, 2001b).

In aristocratic regimes, monarchs personify the apex of power and prestige. While this may do wonders for the ego, it can also produce public relations problems. Revered as monarchs may be, they represent highly visible reminders of where the buck stops. As a result of their visibility, in good times monarchs reap all the glory, however in dark days they embody a focus for dissent. Heightened visibility has lead to more than one violent regime change for a luckless monarch (Hibbert, 1981; Jenner, 1989).

Indeed, it was just such discontent that lead to the termination of King George's dominion over the American colonies. While the publicly-stated goal of regime change in the US was to implement a government of, by, and for the people, the USA's restricted version of democracy reconsolidated power among a privileged minority. Nonetheless, having constituted itself on a repudiation of aristocratic self-interest, any official recognition of biased, limited, or elite (Domhoff, 2002; Mills, 1956) political control would create the pretext for another popular uprising.

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government (Declaration of Independence, 1776)

The trick to consolidating enormous power within a political system esteeming democratic principles is to maintain a low profile. In the US, class distinctions are often characterized as either non-existent or irrelevant (Kingston, 2000) largely because the upper class strategically eschews visible markers of distinction, i.e., titles, crowns, and other aristocratic pomp, (Domhoff, 2002).

Thus, it becomes the task of politicians to maintain an illusion of populist democracy while bowing to the will of the “grand bazaar” (Greider, 1992). Politicians tend to stretch credulity so often that they are generally viewed as professional fibbers. Indeed, even in situations wherein voters repudiate politicians for breaking memorable campaign promises—such as the antipathy inspired by George H. W. Bush's broken “read my lips” pledge (Ostrander, 2000)—they are rewarded with the ascendancy of others equally keen to breach their promises. 3

While democratic rhetoric capably shrouds the elite US power structure, oddly enough, it can also be commandeered to achieve populist goals. Against very long odds, more than one group of activists has utilized democratic principles to defy American inequality (Armas, 2003; Barrett, 1999; Branch, 1989; Churchill, 2003; Collins, 1991; hooks, 1992, 1994; Weiss, 1999; Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1998). The fact that these struggles have been so arduous and costly indicates that democracy can never be taken for granted: fibbers maintain a vested interest in preserving their version of the truth.

Truth or Consequences

In principle, democracy is the best imaginable form of government. Unfortunately, democracy has never realized its ideals. While one may propose that organizational logistics prohibit idealized democratic forums (Michels, 1959), one can also assert that accomplished fibbers have consistently undermined the USA's democratic principles. This is particularly relevant in a context wherein the current occupant of the White House garnered a minority of the popular vote in the 2000 election. 4

The truth is that democracy is intended to serve the majority at the expense of the privileged minority, i.e., aristocrats—with or without noble titles. However, as long as democracy caters unabashedly to the privileged few (Armas, 2003; Baraka, 2001; Bernstein, 2003; Chomsky, 1996, 1999; Churchill, 2003; Domhoff, 2002; Fitzsimons, 2002; Greider, 1992; McGettigan, 2001b; Weiss, 1999), that fib suffices as the most effective means with which to undermine the realization of democratic ideals. Fortunately, in spite of all the fibs, people retain the capacity to determine and fight for their own truths (McGettigan, 1998, 1999, 2002)—and this will become all the more essential as Orwellian (1983) efforts to preempt dissent proliferate (ACLU, 2003; Sanchez, 2003). Democratic freedoms that have been dearly won are sometimes discounted with astonishing cynicism (Lane, 2003; Nando Times, 2003). That is precisely why Jefferson asserted that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Democracy exists in name only, now more than ever, in the absence of enduring campaigns to liberate the truth from self-interested, smooth-talking fibbers.


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1. This is a modified version of a paper originally published in Dialogue and Universalism, Volume XIII, Number 5/2003.

2. Many thanks to the Fulbright Scholar Program, and, in particular, the Polish-U.S. Fulbright Commission. Please direct all correspondence to Timothy McGettigan, The Centre for Social Studies, Nowy Swiat 72, 00-330 Warszawa, Poland, Office Phone: (4822) 8288 009, Email:

3. Bill Clinton took advantage of public antipathy to NAFTA in the 1992 presidential campaign by blasting George H. W. Bush for his sponsorship of the trade pact. However, shortly after his election, Clinton waged a ferocious 11th hour battle to secure passage of the yet-unpopular NAFTA deal (Grant, 1993).

4. In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush obtained only 47.87% of the popular vote, or a grand total of 50, 456, 002 votes (Federal Election Commission, 2001). The leading vote-getter, Al Gore, finished only slightly better, netting 48.38%, or 50,999, 897 votes. Despite the fact that George W. Bush acquired fewer votes, he managed to finagle victory in the Electoral College. Subsequent to George W. Bush's occupation of the White House, major media sources conducted a statewide recount of the Florida presidential vote and, despite headlines indicating the contrary, reported that Al Gore had garnered a greater number of Florida's votes (Fessenden and Broder, 2001; Keating and Balz, 2001; Grey, 2001). Thus, according to the standard rules of democratic politics (conspicuously in abeyance since 2000), Al Gore should have received Florida's electoral votes and been elected president.