How Democratic Is The United States? Scene On Radio Podcast Searches For An Answer

Mar 11, 2020

The cotton industry is just one of the pieces of American history that the fourth season of 'Scene on Radio' interrogates in its quest to learn of the role of democracy in our history. A cotton bale at the Old Slater Mill Historic Site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Credit John Biewen

Democracy is at the center of the creation myth of the United States. But just how important was democracy to our nation’s founding fathers?


The fourth season of the Scene on Radio podcast from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University takes a critical look back on American history, digging deep to uncover stories that are often untold in textbooks and history classes. “The Land That Never Has Been Yet” features interviews with historians and authors about the motivations behind big moments from the last few hundred years.

Host Frank Stasio talks to host and producer John Biewen and collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika about the roles that democracy and capitalism have played in the formation of the U.S. Biewen is the director of audio at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and Kumanyika is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

Interview Highlights

Biewen on the idea that the United States government reflects the will of the people:

We look at ways in which there were lots of structures that were built into the very architecture of the country from the start, that were essentially vetoes that were controlled by people with more power and wealth to prevent most people — most regular people, even most regular, like working class and poor white people — from having an equal say in the way the country is run.

Kumanyika on the role of violence in our nation’s history:

Violence was capitalist innovation. Edward Baptist writes about that. And that continues today when you talk about the violence of Amazon workers who are being — who literally are being worked at a pace where they're dying on the floor, right? And that's being tested out as an innovative kind of mode of delivery, right? And so these are like, these are core to the business models of contemporary capitalism. But we've seen that since slavery all the way up till now, and protecting that business interest is an anti-democratic tradition in America.