Of, by, and For the People:
What Happened to American Democracy?
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June 6, 2011
One of the most interesting stories in the history of
the United States involved Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
President Lincoln had a minor role in dedicating a cemetery at
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the burial of those who had died for the
union in the American Civil War.
As is true of many wars,
Lincoln had lost popularity as a result of the loss of lives. He was
also given a short time to prepare his dedication speech.
a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, Lincoln's address took only a few
minutes devoted to maintaining support for the war.
moving address was completed in ten powerful sentences beginning with:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this
continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal.
He then noted
briefly their purpose in being there "to ... dedicate ...a final resting
place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."
Lincoln summed up his position by reminding his audience of
"...the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we
take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full
measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall
not have died in vain."
His conclusion: “--that this nation,
under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the
people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
President Barack Obama's presidential ideal has been Abraham
Lincoln, the man who made famous the phrase "Of the people, by the
people, for the people".
One can see why the author of that
captivating rubric for a democracy would have endless appeal to Obama, a
natural icon "of the people".
Obama is one of the few
presidents not from the highest stratosphere of an elite oligarchy, but
descendant from ordinary people.
"By the people" informed much
of Obama's rhetoric that stimulated so many people to vote for him. The
appeal of his arguments and promises for change earned him the
Unfortunately, once he got into office, he no longer
reflected a government "by the people". The government, controlled by
corporate barons, lobbies and Wall Street, devoured Obama.
Equally pernicious, Obama totally reneged on his promise of change to a
government for the people.
The bailouts of his early days in
office did not benefit the people. Help for home owners whose
mortgages were being foreclosed would have. Instead the help went to the
financial institutions of Wall Street to save them.
of Lincoln's of, by and for the people and the unfulfilled promises of
Obama have lessons to be learned.
These are the ideals of
democracy. The ideals don't become reality simply by stating them in a
speech or by marching with flags and slogans in a demonstration.
They don't become reality through protests or speeches promising change.
As English journalist and novelist Arnold Bennett said, "Any change,
even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and
America still hasn't achieved the democracy that
Abe Lincoln's words revered or that Obama's campaign hopes nourished.
One of America's leading senators, J. William Fulbright, said
"It's unnatural and unhealthy for a nation to be engaged in global
crusades for some principle or idea while neglecting the needs of its
Instead of exerting pressure on others for
democracies, America needs to focus on improving its own.