Tune in to Professor Gary Gerstle's four-part series, America: Laboratory of Democracy, on the BBC World Service where he presents the story of how America became the world’s first big democracy.
Profoessor Gerstle, Fellow in History at Sidney Sussex and the Paul Mellon Professor of American History, based the series on an argument that he developed in his 2015 book, Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present: namely, that the American system of government birthed between 1776 and 1791 was less a precocious system of democratic rule than a jerry-built structure of ill-fitting parts. Participants in this system had to contend with unanticipated consequences; they had to improvise constantly. The wonder is that the system worked at all.
The first three episodes in the series each examines one of the system’s peculiarities: A Constitution that could almost never be amended even when it was imperative to do so; an electoral system meant to make the people sovereign requiring wealthy Americans to pump it full of private money; and state governments operating under a theory of power dramatically different from that which guided the federal government. The fourth and last episode emphasizes the critical role played by insurgent movements originating outside the political parties in making an otherwise unwieldly system both democratic and effective.
Each thirty-minute episode covers the entire sweep of American history. Each intermixes narration with interview clips from the dozens of individuals whom Professor Gerstle interviewed for this project during a trip across America in June 2017.
The four episodes and dates are as follows:
I. 25 October 2017: Drowning Government in a Bathtub
II. 1 November 2017: Money: The Lifeblood of American Democracy
III. 8 November 2017: Little Leviathans
IV. 15 November 2017: Insurgent Nation
You can listen to these episodes by visiting The Compass, BBC World Service webpage.
Each episode will be made available to stream on this webpage shortly after airing.
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