Democracy Matters is a sequel to Cornel West’s Race Matters and is a consequence of the “ugly imperialism” that, while building over the past century, has grown dramatically with the ascension of the Bush administration and the subsequent military expansion of US Empire. West acknowledges that this imperialism is not new, but also argues that is at a “low-point” and is accelerating due to the external foe of Islamic terror and the perceived internal threat of “leftism” resulting in a continued expansion of “free-market fundamentalism” (NAFTA), aggressive militarism (abusive police in communities of color), and escalating authoritarianism (targeted crime fighting) internally and wars of conquest abroad. As a result of this growth of imperialism, West argues that it is imperative that we begin to fight the imperialist system and work towards developing a renewed democracy.
For West, the United States’ failure to recognize its role as an imperialist power is a result of its failure to acknowledge that the United States’ origins were in a racist and imperialist system inherited when the country broke from the British Empire. West argues that “democracy” created in the United States reproduced many of the same oppressions that existed in the British Empire, and as a result, the enslavement of Africans and the imperialist expansion overseas became driving forces behind the growth of the United States and its version of democracy. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was a full-fledged empire with overseas possessions (largely belonging to people of color) and a domestic internal system of racist terror. This reality then shaped the development of democracy in the twentieth century, greatly contributing to a system in which pecuniary values are place above those of solidarity and compassion and where the political system has evolved to a point where the two political parties represent corporate interests and power almost exclusively, creating a situation in which most Americans have not only given up on the electoral process, but more disheartening, the entire notion of political involvement.
Of course, like all books that analyze the role of United States power and come to the conclusion that fundamental changes are immediately necessary, the question of “what is to be done” remains. West believes that the United States can change and that it can shift from being an imperial power administering a vast empire and can become a flourishing democracy provided that ordinary citizens realize their own power and the legacy of oppositional movements and thinkers from which they can build a new movement. The intellectual traditions of Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Baldwin are cited as examples of individuals that worked to keep democratic ideals alive and offer a vision of what we might be trying to achieve, while the white populist, progressive, and trade union movements (aside from their xenophobic and imperialist aspects) offer the example of concrete movements that won concessions within the United States empire and forced an alteration, however minor, of its direction. West also points to Martin Luther King, Jr. as an individual who understood the connections between race, power, and imperialism, and argues that as US citizens we must consider King’s analysis and dismantle the imperialist power structure.
While not a definitive analysis of American imperialism, Cornel West’s Democracy Matters makes a number of unique contributions to the discussion, especially with its placement of race as a primary issue within imperialism and the role culture is used to both reinforce the imperialist system and neutralize oppositional movements that arise within the United States. A reading of Democracy Matters coupled with some of Noam Chomsky’s works would put one on the path towards developing a working understanding of how US imperialism functions in the real world and what its ramifications are for both those outside the United States and those within its borders. West does occasionally stray from his purpose, delving into areas, such as his own experience almost being fired from Harvard University for taking public positions opposing imperialist power, but for the most part, West provides a simple analysis of US imperialism and the prospects for exchanging imperialism for democracy.
Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, (Penguin Press, 2004).