Monday, February 18, 2019
In the US, in the early nineteenth century, to be called a democrat was considered an insult (democracy being seen as the equivalent of mobocracy). The term was at that time an equivalent to the denomination of “populists” in contemporary Europe. The federalists thus called Jefferson’s supporters “democrats” in order to demean them. This insult would then be inverted and positively embraced, as a valorizing attribute, resulting in the founding of the “Democratic Party” in 1828. The Democrat was the “common man” who accused the federalist elites of being “Brahmins” or aristocrats. The opposing side valued what was known as the “nose-count democracy” or “coonskin democracy” (i.e., democracy of those who wore a trapper’s hat, with a raccoon’s tail), celebrating the authentic America of these nose-counts and coonskins. The Federalists, however, who founded the “Whig” party, which later become the “Republican” party, soon came, by the same token, to emphasize their “popular touch” in electoral competitions. And they ultimately said that they were as “democratic” as Jackson’s supporters, whose candidate was elected president in 1830. Thus it was also a sociological variable that explains the shift to the positive use of the term “democracy” in the United States – yet in the blurriest of ways, even more than in France. The American cult of democracy would ultimately be associated with a form of messianism, referring to a divine project. It was this will to appropriate “democracy” as a synonym for American exceptionalism that completed its acclimatization and placed the term at the heart of the American political vocabulary. Its consecration would come when it transformed America into a country that conceived itself as promoting a new universalism (an idea whose naïve arrogance produced, over the course of the twentieth century, effects with which we are all familiar). A famous writer from this period stated: “For us, democracy is now merely Christianity put into practice.” This meant that democracy had become a religion and that it was no longer simply a political regime.
-Pierre Rosanvallon, as culled from this essay