Democracy and the USA – Leonard Cohen

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was perceived by many as a beginning of a new era, optimistic and full of joy. At the time is seemed that the influence of the US and western European countries was expanding, and nothing could stop it. Many thought the world is gradually advancing to a better future. Only some – Leonard Cohen among them – expressed concern regarding this very extensive historical process, arguing the promoting democratic values is a slow complex process, more complicated than simply establishing a democracy.

Leonard Cohen began writing “Democracy” after the fall of the Wall. Many notebooks were filled with lines and rhymes, words crossed out time and again, there were more than fifty version of the song until he was happy with the final one, released on 1992. The song is an epitome of his perception of American culture and the way it metes out democracy. It is an intricate puzzle of serious historical observations and ironic references to sentences often heard in the US.

The leitmotif is rather surprising: “democracy is coming to the USA.” We tend to think of the US as a source of inspiration for other countries; it is often referred to as the most prominent democracy on earth. But in the first line we are astonished to learn that democracy is penetrating into the US from holes in the air and in the walls, from the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Yet a couple of lines later we realize that Cohen is referring to places within the US (like Chevrolet workers) as sources of democratic ideas “coming” to America. So where exactly is the US and where are the democratic ideas coming from?

If we follow the logic of the song we find that the US is essentially a concept, an idea, a place not defined by its geographic borders but by its fundamental values. I think the events of the last couple of months truly affirm this view: It is not the physical border of the US that is important but the American way of life. In an interview after the song had been released Leonard Cohen said, “It is a song where there’s no inside and no outside. This is just the life of the democracy.” And what is the US? “A lab of democracy,” a place where democratic ideas are truly tested. Democracy is not a steady state but a process, an infinite examination of ideas like equality, freedom, opportunities. The song compares the US to a sailing ship, which must be vigilant against greed and hate.

From here Cohen attempts to define American culture. He first affirms America’s religious roots. “The Sermon on the Mount” is his point of departure, after which he provides a fascinating depiction of life in the US. Democracy, he argues, is not self-evident; it is acquired with effort, pain, it emerges “from the sorrow in the streets,” from inter-racial tension, from women kneeling down suffering, from a struggle about who would serve and who would eat – the song is full of descriptions of people in agony. Cohen’s US is not a tranquil wealthy place, a country in which human rights are secured. It is a country in which a constant battle is taking place, “the cradle of the best and of the worst,” where people can achieve the best and fall into deepest darkness.

His observations of American individualism are especially interesting. The spirit that drives people to achieve their goals also pushes them away from one another. “It’s here they got the spiritual thirst,” he says, but then he connects self-fulfillment with the breaking of the family, “It’s here the family’s broken.” In an ironic tone he elaborated on the loneliness so typical of life in the US, along with a denial of its source, “and it’s here the lonely say that their heart has got to open in a fundamental way.” Clearly loneliness is not a result of the lack of openness; it is a mechanism of denial, unwillingness to admit that there is a link between extreme individualism and loneliness. And though the American spirit has a pronounced sexual character, sensual and passionate, ultimately people are alone.

In the last stanza Cohen seems to break life in the US into the smallest components, almost into the physical material it is made of. “And I’m neither right nor left, I’m just staying home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” This is a reduction of high principles into a very simple, uncomplicated life. Many American are not concerned with politics or the fundamental principles of democracy; they completely withdraw into their private space, watching TV for hours. But the strong determined spirit of America is also embedded in these people, who seem so detached from the public sphere, they are “like a garbage bag that time cannot decay.”

There’s nothing like this metaphor to express a big idea with a small object: not passionate speeches on the American spirit, not the American bald eagle or the hand on the heart while singing the national anthem – but a disposable garbage bag; it is man-made, lacks any elegance or grace, but endures forever.

Democracy/Leonard Cohen

It’s coming through a hole in the air,
From those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real,
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
From the sirens night and day,
From the fires of the homeless,
From the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.


It’s coming to America first,
The cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


It’s coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we’ll be making love again.
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway,
Imperial, mysterious,
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


Sail on, sail on


I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thanks, Yasmine. Indeed, the word Democracy is misused so often lately, in various places around the globe!!
    All the very best to you.

  • Yasmine says:

    I,ve been remembering Cohen’s words many, many a time during all the years, particularly “I love the country, but I don’t like the scene”. Democracy is one of the most misused words. I remember it every day, looking at my devastated country, rich with everything but a little honesty, robbed of everything, heading towards fascism. Margaritas ante porcos, literally. And democracy is THE word everyone is using all the time, dirtying it. And then I listen to the one and only Cohen. And feel a bit better.
    Many thanks Emanuela, for the great survey. And many greetings, Yasmine

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