Some thoughts on democracy

In the spirit of July 4th, and motivated by the recent coup in Egypt, I would like to share some of my thoughts on democracy.  The coup in Egypt will likely reignite many of the old arguments about whether democracy is possible in the Middle East.  Pundits will wonder if Islam is compatible with democracy, while Op-Ed writers will ask whether such repressed and highly religious societies have the ability to embrace a form of government that tolerates other opinions and allows every person to participate in the electoral system.  But while these questions will generate viewers and ad revenue, they miss the far more important reason for Egypt’s troubles: the simple fact that democracy is hard.  It is hard to transition to and it is hard to maintain.  People far smarter than I have studied these two issues for decades (I particularly like the work of Paul Collier) so all I am going to add here are some anecdotal musings.

If you think about it, few of the countries that are democratic today either transitioned to democracy or have maintained their democracy without serious periods of instability or outright civil war.  Take for example the United States.  We like to think of ourselves as an exceptional and enlightened people, destined for democracy and tasked with spreading it throughout the world.  This self-concocted image may do wonders for our national ego but the facts don’t exactly match the story.  As the following series of events shows, there was nothing guaranteed about American democracy in the years immediately after the end of the revolutionary war.  There were plenty of instances where democracy could have failed and been replaced by something far more sinister.  For example, in 1786, only three years after the end of the war, aggrieved Massachusetts residents led by veteran Daniel Shay rebelled against the government, shutting down courts and marching on the armory in Springfield.  Five years later another rebellion broke out, this time among farmers upset over new taxes on whiskey.  Both rebellions were put down without major incident or loss of life, but that didn’t mean the troubles were over.

Just a few years later in 1798, motivated by the Quasi War with France and the fear of pro-French Revolution sentiment in the States, Congress passed and President Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts.  These cheerful laws gave the President the power to expel or detain, without proof, any foreign national he believed to be an enemy of the United States.  Furthermore, the laws essentially outlawed speech critical of the government, dictating:

That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

While these laws were controversial even when they were originally passed (and they are better examples of anti-liberalism than anti-democracy) the simple fact is that less than ten years after the Bill of Rights went into effect, the legislative and executive branches of government collaborated to violate several of its most important protections.  I’d like to be able to say that things got better from here on out, but two years later there was nearly a constitutional crisis as a result of the 1800 presidential election.

With Jefferson and his assumed running mate Aaron Burr both receiving 73 electoral votes (to incumbent John Adams’ 65), it was up to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives to choose who would be president and who would be VP.  It’s important to remember that the Constitution originally mandated that the person with the most electoral votes would be president and the person with the second most would be vice-president.  There was no ticket like there is today.  This is how John Adams, a Federalist, ended up with Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, as his VP.  This flaw was fixed with the 12th Amendment.

Anyway, it wasn’t until the 36th ballot that the crisis between Jefferson and Burr was resolved, with Alexander Hamilton convincing his Federalist peers to back Jefferson because while Hamilton and the Federalists despised both men, Jefferson was “not so dangerous a man” as Burr.   If the indecisiveness of the electoral process wasn’t enough of a problem, during the crisis the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania threatened to march his state’s militia on Washington to resolve the stalemate.

I could keep going, but I’ll stop here for the sake of brevity.  At the end of the day, democracy in America survived.  But the point of these little anecdotes is to show that the early years of our country were filled with moments of unrest and threats to the system of governance.  And don’t forget things got even worse half a century later when we fought our own brutal Civil War.   So, while things in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East are bad, remember that even the United States had moments where democracy was under attack.  Furthermore, we must remember that it has been a long, slow process of constant improvement to get our system of government and individual rights to where it is today.

Just like Egypt will have to in the years to come, the United States and its principles had to evolve over time.  People often forget that the America of today is vastly different from the America of 1789.  And I’m not talking about in a “well gee we have computers and cars now” sort of way.  I’m talking values.  The United States has struggled to define its values and principles for its entire existence.  For example, for centuries people around the world have applied the phrase “all men are created equal” to their cause and criticized the United States when it failed to act on their behalf.  Yet, originally the phrase applied solely to white, protestant men.  Over time, the meaning of the phrase has been extended to blacks, women, immigrants, and perhaps in the near future homosexuals.  But the extension of this classic phrase to changing social realities did not occur overnight.  It took two hundred years and is continuing to this day.  With this in mind, I implore you to not give up on Egypt yet.  Its democratic story has just begun.

Leave a Reply