Is America still the 'last best hope of earth'?
Our way of doing democracy is full of risk and failure, but Lincoln saw it as the safeguard of free people.
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The irony of this triumph, however, is that the more democracy has succeeded, the less unique that triumph has seemed. For Americans to claim now that their democracy is "the last best hope of earth" sounds inexcusably boastful, as though Americans owned a template that all nations ought to follow.Skip to next paragraph
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If anything, in the century and a half since Lincoln's day, American society has often been criticized for lagging behind the other versions of democracy on offer in the world. We have greater extremes of wealth and poverty than any other industrialized democracy. We have greater numbers of prisoners incarcerated in jails and prisons, greater racial inequities, more people without health insurance, more workers unrepresented by unions, more unemployment, a thinner economic safety net, and so on.
Equality of opportunity
All of which is true. True, but irrelevant when we speak of democracy. Lincoln believed profoundly in the importance of hope, but hope for Lincoln was the hope that sprang from the opportunity for self-improvement, not from security from risk. "Pure slavery has no hope," Lincoln wrote in 1859. Slavery, he said in 1858, "extinguished" the soul of the slave by placing "him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness" and where no prospect of transformation or improvement is possible.
Democracy, however, was what opened hope to everyone. It leveled the playing field, and gave no artificial handicaps to a certain elite few, based on birth or race or religion, or to their retainers and mascots. It was not the security of results, Lincoln insisted, but the equality of economic opportunity that made democracy "right, eternally right" and made the United States the "last best hope of earth."
Not every experiment in democracy has grasped this. Even in the most advanced European democracies, the old habits of noblesse oblige, of social guarantees, of authority and deference to the wiser and better, still persist. And the fact that these relics of the feudal past can manage to sit side-by-side with some aspects of democracy is a temptation to Americans, who pall at the uncertainties and insecurities of American life, to wonder if we really are that "last best hope" any more.
Lincoln, I suspect, would not have agreed. He knew very well that "other means may succeed" in pointing nations toward democracy; but the American experiment in equality of opportunity "could not fail" to get there.
It is a way of doing democracy full of risk, and liable to pain and failures. But its fruits are the achievements of genuinely free men and women. It is "a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless." Lincoln would still call it the "last best hope of earth."
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