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Democracy is Messy: What We can Learn from History


During the Presidential campaign conservatives attacked the President for the Benghazi incident on September 11th. Many of the President’s supporters have claimed this is nothing more than the right wing media and the President’s political opponents politicizing a tragic incident. I agree, but I think there is something deeper to this criticism.

The American Right is trying to figure out what their position should be on the Arab Spring. To be fair, the Obama Administration has not been consistent during the Arab Spring, and has instead taken a very cautious approach. But who could blame them, when the Bush Administration supported the elections in the West Bank they ended up with Hamas, and during the election in Afghanistan we ended up with President Hamid Karzai.

Many policy makers are, understandably, scratching their heads. And many Americans are scratching their heads as well. For many Americans, the thought of the Middle East being ruled by parties like the Muslim Brotherhood is frightening, but this may be something that America and the west will have to accept as the Arab world begins to become more democratic.

So what should Americans do? This is not the first time a country, torn by either war or a political and financial crisis, has had to start a new government. If we look at our own history we would know that building a government is very chaotic process.

It is easy for Americans to look at the founding of our country and ask the the question: “Why is the Arab world having such a hard time creating a country that is centered on the Rule of Law and Democracy?”

The truth is American democracy did not just happen; instead it is hundreds of years in the making, starting with first settlers from England to North America.

When the first settlers came to North America the idea of monarchy and parliamentary rule had to be thrown out the window. The settlers were 4000 miles away from the Government of England, so the settlers did something revolutionary. They created their own laws, not based on nobility or title, but created as a community. This was the beginning of American Rule of Law. From the 1500’s-1700’s other English colonies were created. They had their own governments, legislatures, and court systems.

During the American Revolution the Continental Congress decided to form a new country and create a new government. That country was The United States of America; dependent upon the Articles of Confederation. What were the Articles of Confederation and why are they no longer our guiding document? The simple answer is that it was a complete failure.

The Articles of Confederation were the first constitution of the United States, from 1776-1789. The Articles created a weak central government, unable to fill the most basic functions of a state.

Eventually the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the current US constitution. But that was far from the only problem our founders had. After the revolution the country faced a failing economy, high inflation, massive debt, high unemployment, and soaring food prices. It took many years until the economy recovered. And it took many years until the rule of law applied to all people.

We cannot ignore that this country has a complicated past that includes slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and segregation. Women were unable to vote, blacks and other minorities faced state sanctioned discrimination.

If our founders had a hard time creating a government and if it took our country as long as it did to end segregation, then we should expect that countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya might not solve their problems overnight either.

The Arab spring is far from over. The Egyptian military is still holding on to its power. The Tunisian economy is in free fall. Libya is still recovering from their civil war. And where these countries do begin to become more stable they have several disadvantages that our country did not face. Countries such as Egypt have no history of self-governance, political parties, or freedom of press. To expect a fully functional democracy anytime soon would be a mistake.

Look at European history. Countries transitioning to democratic republics have always had a hard time. France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, were all countries that tried to become democracies and failed, became dictatorships, and eventually become democracies.

Americans can also look at what has happened in Eastern Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of those countries are still having a hard time transitioning. Russia today still lacks a legitimate freedom of speech, and has been ruled by one man for the last 12 years.

It is important to remember that this is going to be a bumpy ride. The United States is going to have to work with whoever ends up in power, throughout the region. And it is not just the Arab world. South America, Africa, Asia and East Europe are all going through transitions, and all we can do is wait. History is a lot of things, but it is never static.

Democracy takes a long time and if we want stability in the long run then we should allow the messy process to happen. As long as electoral outcomes remain fair; as long as it was the ballot, not the bullet that decided the election, then we should allow our messy democratic process to continue, and support similar efforts across the globe.