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America's Re-emerging Democracy

By Daniel Brumberg

Next week's election has me thinking about democracy both at home and abroad. How, I wonder, can the U.S. promote political reform overseas unless it puts its own house in order? One of our chief problems is widespread political apathy, a long-standing ailment compounded by a congressional redistricting system that encourages political disengagement. Yes indeed, people are "free" to vote or stay at home. But their choices are shaped by the perception that voting does (or does not) advance their interests. As political scientists would put it, the culture of apathy is politically "structured."

The good thing about democracies is that such structures are not fixed. The rights and laws essential to democratic life provide a means to expand the boundaries of political participation. In autocracies, by contrast, these mechanisms are missing. This is why democracy promoters place so much emphasis on "first elections" in transitioning regimes. By undermining the structure of collective resignation upon which autocracies rely, these elections can transform today's apathetic into tomorrow's active citizens.

I have seen this transformation up close. Twelve years ago I found myself in a village in the West Bank not far from the Nablus, counting ballots alongside a group of tired but hopeful Palestinians. I had come to the West Bank with the National Democratic Institute/Carter Center Election Observer Delegation. For three days I drove around the West Bank with two colleagues, one of whom was the New York Times columnist Flora Lewis. Chain-smoking and defiant, Flora fearlessly challenged the thugs brought in by Fatah to intimidate voters. Three years later I traveled to the hills of East Java, Indonesia, where I watched people boo or cheer as election officials announced the results of the 1999 parliamentary elections. There is no political experience more exhilarating than to see the gleam in the eyes of people casting a ballot for a different future. A first truly free election is a cathartic awakening for those who have suffered the indignities of autocracy.

If Indonesia offers an inspiring example of an emerging democracy, the U.S. might be seen as a "reemerging democracy," a country whose political system is being revived after years of political estrangement between Washington and everywhere else.

This is not a Republican or Democratic story. If Republicans feel that they are being sandbagged by the Democrats' mobilizing campaign, they should take heart: whatever the costs democracies pay for rousing a sleeping citizenry via the imperfect mechanisms of mass voter registration are far outweighed by the benefits all of us reap by strengthening the very fabric of political life. Indeed, by enhancing the credibility of our political system, the millions of Democrats and Republicans who have already voted-- or who will vote for the first time on November 4--will help make it possible for many of today's vanquished to be tomorrow's victors.

Still, it is hard for today's losers to see past their noses, to see--that is--beyond the costs they might pay for their rivals' victories. Mass mobilization provokes fears of seemingly unknown forces, of strange names and strange places. Our leaders can address such worries constructively or they can manipulate them for crass political purposes.

Our dire economic crisis both invites and deters such manipulation. Just watch CNN. When a giddy party enthusiast mockingly holds up a Teddy Bear crowned by a Obama bumper sticker that looks like some kind of African headdress, we are momentarily thrown back to an era of racist effigies proudly displayed. Yet the good news is that daunting economic challenges have concentrated minds, so much so that one reads countless stories of struggling blue collar workers who admit racial prejudices while declaring in the same breath that they will move beyond them.

Will they keep their word? Such a prospect has only invited more scare tactics. Consider the recent mailing 28 million copies of Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West. This film deploys sensationalist language and imagery in ways that intentionally or unintentionally induce fear, not merely of radical Islamism--which is a very real threat-- but of the Islamic faith itself. Yet this is not a Muslim American issue. Everyone-Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, atheists and uncommitted agnostics--loses when one group is targeted as that menacing "other," linked in some global conspiracy that threatens the "American" way of life. No wonder that the prominent liberal Jewish writer, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, roundly condemns the film. The effort to "transform religious fear...into an election tool," he argues, is a snare that could entrap all of us.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not an endorsement of the policies of one presidential candidate over another. The candidates are both honorable men whose serious differences over domestic and foreign policy merit sober debate. But these issues have often been drowned out by the drumbeat of fear mongering. Regardless of who wins on November 4, much will have to be done in the ensuing year to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that America is truly is a reemerging democracy that can legitimately promote the creed of freedom abroad.

Daniel Brumberg is an Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University and Co-Director of the Democracy and Governance Studies at GU. He also serves as a Acting Director of the United States Institute of Peace Muslim World Initiative, where he directs a number of programs on democracy and political change in the Muslim world.

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Comments (4)

ChelleC Author Profile Page:







Words & Music By Rachelle Cano
ASCAP copyright 2008

"Peace, Hope Prosperity"

Come together sons and daughters

Now’s the time to stand up for this country you love

If you’re a father, like I’m a mother

I will not leave my child the weight of war and despair

Come together all my brothers

Now’s the time to pledge your voices deep from your soul

If you’ve been workin, still it’s not workin

There’s got to be a way to break outta the mold

Peace, Hope Prosperity

No more inequalities

It’s all just too discouraging

To think we’d leave behind such broken dreams

We should respect our elders’ dreams



ZZim Author Profile Page:

Bevjims1: "American voter apathy is no more a sign of a weak democracy than a person who has made their fortune, and does not have to work, is not a sign of laziness. "

Brilliant line, Bevjims1, brilliant.

To me the great story of the last 8 years is the sight of Iraqis and Afghans voting for a democratic government for the first time in their lives. Voters in both nations braved a gauntlet of thugs leftover from the former dictatorships in order to vote. I remember seeing it on the news and feeling like it was a miracle. Brumberg probably can't say it aloud due to social pressure from his colleagues, but he's probably a huge Gearge Bush fan in secret, I have no doubt.

bevjims1 Author Profile Page:

"If Indonesia offers an inspiring example of an emerging democracy, the U.S. might be seen as a "reemerging democracy," a country whose political system is being revived after years of political estrangement between Washington and everywhere else."

I don't see apathy among a democracy's population to be a lessening of democracy. Apathy in a democracy is a measure of democracy working. The true test of a democracy is the measure of apathy when times are bad. People are only politically apathetic for two reasons:

1) Everything is going well.
2) They have no power and so why complain.

In America we have never reduced the people's power to toss politicians from power. We have never just given up when things get bad. On the contrary, look at what is happening today. There is talk of an 80% turnout on Nov 4. Those currently in power are feeling defeated and beginning the serious self examination of why their country is rejecting their policies, not just in the white house but in congress too.

American voter apathy is no more a sign of a weak democracy than a person who has made their fortune, and does not have to work, is not a sign of laziness. Democracy is a tool used to fix things and today it is being used a lot. In a few years the economy will settle down, unemployment will be low, housing will stabalize and people will once again feel secure and their futures bright, and politicos like yourself will once again complain that American voters are apathetic. What you fail to grasp is that they are simply happy as a result of their previous use of democracy.

And you column seems to describe the "citizenry" as "sleeping" and it was the campaigns that woke them up. You seem to forget that the campaigns are being run BY citizens, and that citizens are not being woken up because of the campaign but that the campaign is being driven by the very awake citizenry, which has been wide awake as a result of the past 8 years of bad news.

The campaigns do not lead the citizenry, the citizenry leads the campaigns. Just ask Obama who has so much money from that citizenry he can produce his own prime time TV show, while McCain is pulling out of states because of money woes. So many people forget that democracy is a bottom up system, not a top down autocracy. Keep that in mind as you examine what is happening in this election.

Its the people exerting their power, not the powerful using the people as so many mistakenly assume. And when the people get their choice on Nov 4 and realize the better future they are voting for, they will once again appear to be sleeping happily, but with one eye open. Never underestimate the power of an unhappy voter and never take for granted a voter that appears asleep or apathetic.

kengelhart Author Profile Page:

"sensationalist language and imagery in ways that intentionally or unintentionally induce fear"

My question is whether enough of us exist who despise this kind of behavior to have any influence over it. If we are a minority how do we change the attitude over all?

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.