Democracy is a process. Maybe this is the foundational message of the book Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis. The book tells the story of the Supreme Court Case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, whereby the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1963 that all defendants have the right to an attorney, even though if they do not have the financial status to pay for an attorney. In other words, the right to an attorney becomes a legal and democratic right under American law.
How does this tie to the notion that “democracy is a process?” What is most shocking about Lewis’ book is this legal story itself: that it was only about fifty years ago that Americans had the right to have an attorney, even if they did not have access to the financial means to hire an attorney. This, in other words, seems to be a clear instance of discrimination and undemocratic practice: the poor or those with inadequate financial assets cannot have the same type of trial as someone with financial assets. Coming from the perspective of a foreign student, from China more specifically, one is constantly assailed with the American propaganda about how democratic the country is: but one only has to look at the history of America to see the amount of discrimination that has existed in this society and continues to exist.
This is not to say that efforts are not made to improve the democratic system in America. This is what Gideon’s Trumpet shows with its case of Gideon vs. Wainwright. But it shows that even in a system that always calls itself a democracy, real instances of discrimination continue to exist. Hence, democracy from this book is shown as a process where instances of discrimination have to be continually exposed and hopefully eliminated through legal decisions.
In the case of America, there seems to be historically two major forms of discrimination. Firstly, there was a racial discrimination, obviously shown by America’s long legacy of slavery and the inferior treatment of African-Americans. The fact that it was only in the 1960s that civil rights became a viable issue and many systematic problems of American legal and constitutional and social life were corrected shows that this radical discrimination was a wide-standing problem in American history. Gideon’s Trumpet alerts the reader to another long-standing tradition of discrimination in the history of the American political system and that is the discrimination based along class lines. Namely, Gideon vs. Wainwright demonstrates that the poor did not have the same privileges as the rich. Consider for example, as the book, explains the democratic tenet that all should be equal before the law and all should have a fair trial. What Gideon’s Trumpet shows is that this democratic tenet can be violated when we consider issues of poverty and class difference.
How does this work? Well, it appears quite obvious as the book shows. Let us say as the book demonstrates that two people from different social backgrounds are accused of a crime in a court of law. These social backgrounds are defined by class: the first individual as the case shows is accurately summarized by the figure of Earl Gideon. Earl Gideon was accused of trying to commit petty larceny. Gideon, however, did not have the money to hire an attorney. This meant, being not educated in the law, he would have to defend himself in this case. As anyone who has had legal issues before knows, an unfamiliarity with the law leads to almost certain failure in any court case. It is necessary to have help in the form of someone familiar with the law.
Now, it is very unlikely that someone from a poor economic background would have a legal education. Compare this to the affluent person I mentioned before with no legal background. Because of his or her capital, he or she may hire an attorney, thus fulfilling the need to have someone working in one’s defense who knows the ways of the law.
This is a clear violation of the opportunity to have a clear and fair trial. There is discrimination at work here, since the individual without legal representation is automatically at a disadvantage in regards to defending themselves. Social discrimination creates an unfair system of defense in the legal paradigm: rich people can have attorneys, while poor people cannot.
Gideon’s Trumpet gives us a story of a very courageous representative of the lower classes: Gideon himself has interpreted the law to say that he should be defended under the legal letter by an attorney. The State of Florida, where he was accused, disagreed with Gideon’s conclusion. Gideon showed a very astute understanding of the law, but this is an exception rather than the norm.
With his challenge of the State of Florida’s decision that he is not entitled to an attorney, Gideon’s case was then brought to the Supreme Court, as Lewis excitingly chronicles. Eventually, the Supreme Court decides in favor of Gideon, thus creating a precedent for legal representation of the poor.
A number of interesting points come from this discussion of the Gideon case in Lewis’ book, all related to my initial thesis that democracy is a process. Firstly, in American law there often seems to be a problem with the State law and the Federal law. The State law often, as in the case of Gideon, has a law that seems to contradict with laws provided in for example the Constitution. Gideon’s astute interpretation of legal matters, despite having no training, helped point out this inconsistency in the law. He thus helped to create a precedent to resolve this inconsistency.
But this inconsistency is not just an inconsistency between different statutes of laws. Rather, in line with my thesis above, it is an example of social discrimination. More specifically, it is an example of discrimination along class lines. This is not an explicit discrimination, but rather an implicit discrimination as the book notes.
If this were an explicit discrimination, something absurd would be written in the law, for example, “those earning less than X American Dollars a year are not entitled to be granted an attorney in a court of law.” This, of course, would be challenged by any type of social activist, as a clear example of discrimination.
Certainly, this example seems absurd. Only the most discriminatory country would have such an explicit law, for example, racist countries or fascist countries, such as Nazi Germany, have had laws that say “Jews cannot do so and so.” This is an explicit discrimination, and in no way would such a society be classified as democratic under any contemporary definition and understanding, either from the legal perspective or from the political perspective, of what democracy means.
What Lewis’ re-telling of the Gideon vs. Wainwright case teaches us is that there are also implicit forms of discrimination. And in many cases, such implicit forms of discrimination are worse. This is because if there did exist such an absurd law like “any one who makes under X American Dollars a year is not entitled to an attorney”, this type of law could be easily criticized as discriminatory. A movement could be made to attack and over-turn this explicitly discriminatory law and this is because it clearly appears in the legal letter of the land.
Implicit discrimination in this sense is much worse. It allows a system to claim to be something, for example, democratic, while hiding another this veil of democracy. It also shows some of the most deep-rooted unconscious prejudices of a society. These are the prejudices which are never appearing out loud in the public discourse, but still are crucial to defining the social arrangement of the people.
In the book Gideon’s Trumpet, what is called to the forefront is precisely this implicit discrimination against the poor. This is why the book is called Gideon’s Trumpet: with his challenging of the implicit discrimination along class lines in the American society, Gideon if you will blew the trumpet on this secret and quiet prejudice existing in the very heart of American law.
With his trumpet-blowing, Gideon showed how implicit discrimination existed in the American legal system. He also demonstrated that this implicit discrimination is biased against the poor. For this reason, the book also is important to understand how such discrimination against the poor is one of the fundamental discriminations of American society.
By this I mean the following: democratic countries are supposed to be founded on principles of equality. This means that equal opportunities becomes an aim of the society. But in America, the vision of democracy is different. Democracy is not equated with an equality of opportunities. Democracy is often equated in the American mind with capitalism: the free right to do what one wants in the market place, and also, the free right of the market place itself. What the book shows us is that in the American mind, democracy is automatically equal to capitalism. You cannot have one without the other. But capitalism is often about inequality: all we have to do is look at social reality. The capitalist owner tries to exploit the worker to make as much profit as possible. Hence, there is an inequality in the society along class lines: not everyone has the same opportunity. Gideon shows that this inequality is written although implicitly into American law.
In this respect, the book Gideon’s Trumpet is very valuable, and this is why I would recommend the book to others, because it makes us think about some of the most fundamental presuppositions about democracy. Namely, the book challenges the key idea of American ideology, and that is the link between democracy and capitalism, that is the link between democracy and a form of economic practice that creates inequality.
To any common sense opinion, it would seem that these two of democracy and capitalism are not interchangeable despite what American history shows. Certainly, people should be allowed freedom in their business practice. But this does not mean that a radical freedom of business practice can turn against American democratic values.
This is why the character of Gideon is so valuable in my view, and so compelling in this book: he not only challenges the hidden and implicit discrimination against the poor by taking his complaint to the Supreme Court. He also, when we think more deeply and philosophically, challenges us to think about the relationship between democracy and capitalism. If we have democracy, do we also need a form of capitalism that is wild and free? I would say no, and I think Gideon would agree, because the wild and free capitalism by its very definition creates inequality. It creates gaps between the haves and have nots. What Gideon’s court case shows is that the gap between the haves and the have nots is not only a gap between who can have a Mercedes and who must drive some used piece of garbage. The gap between the haves and the have nots is a systematic gap, written into the American legal system. This gap can show itself in one of the most elementary ideas of democracy: who is entitled to have a fair trial. By denying the poor man to have a right to a lawyer, although this is implicit in American law before Gideon, you are denying that all men have the right to a fair trial.
There is a positive aspect of democracy in this case of Gideon, however, and this is a positive aspect of American democracy: the law still enables us to change the system to a certain degree. Gideon’s victory is a victory against the implicit discrimination along class lines in American culture. Is this an ultimate victory? No, clearly. Look at the economic crises and movements such as Occupy Wallstreet to see that these differences still exist. This is why democracy is a process and this is what Gideon teaches: we have to seek out the unconscious and hidden discriminations in society and eliminate them. This is the task of any individual, American or not, who remains committed to the idea of democracy.