Since moving to Philadelphia, I’ve often visited the room in Independence Hall where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
As July Fourth approached, I felt a special need to return there to pay tribute to the qualities that enabled those men to establish a democratic system. I refer to their ability to compromise and show tolerance for the opinions of others.
These are qualities that are being challenged within our own political arena. And, as we’ve seen over the last decade, their absence makes it hard for democracy to take root elsewhere.
In a year of popular Arab revolts and almost two decades since communism’s fall in the Soviet Union, we can see how an inability to compromise blocks democratic prospects. Many promising democratic starts have faltered or failed in societies in which compromise is seen as too risky, or flat-out wrong.
I still recall trailing Russian leader Boris Yeltsin around Independence Hall in September 1989; he was quizzing a park ranger about how the Founders devised a system in which the states shared power. This was a bit more than two years before the breakup of the Soviet Union, whose demise created great hopes for democracy in Russia.
But in 1990 — while on a journalistic exchange in Moscow — I saw just how psychologically difficult that shift would be. Russians were used to a system in which politics was a zero-sum game (meaning the winner takes all). In the Soviet era, those who had power never willingly relinquished it. The rest submitted (while privately trying to cheat a system that most despised); dissent meant loss of livelihood, or prison.
Soon after the first elections for local councils in Moscow, I attended a meeting where a Western psychologist tried to instruct council members on the art of compromise, explaining the technical niceties of political coalitions and issue-based politics. He pointed out that defeat on one issue didn’t mean that one couldn’t succeed the next time.
But the new officeholders soon started screaming at one another. One councilman later sheepishly described to me his fear of winding up on the losing side of an issue. His gut instinct warned him that, in Russian politics, losers got no second chance.
This public mind-set, still prevalent in Russia, helped facilitate the country’s return to a softer variant of autocracy. (It wasn’t the only factor, but it was a critical one.) Those who try to organize political opposition to the Kremlin may still get sent to the gulag as happened to billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Despite the Kremlin’s tight hold on power, its leaders still cannot tolerate dissent.
Such fear of dissent, along with an inability to compromise, has undercut Arab experiments with democracy. The top-down imposition of democracy in Iraq carried seeds of its own failure, but Iraq’s innate characteristics have made it hard to rescue this experiment from postwar chaos.
Iraqi Shiite and Sunni leaders were reared under a dictatorship in which dissent meant death. Although the dictator is dead, these leaders now represent sectarian parties that view electoral politics as an extension of their recent civil war. Compromise is so threatening that, months after elections, key ministers haven’t been appointed and the government is practically paralyzed.
Of course, outside factors exacerbate this paralysis, such as pressure from Shiite Iran via its Iraqi Shiite proxies, and the pending withdrawal of remaining U.S. troops. But, at bottom, Iraqis still don’t trust the give-and-take of a democratic system. They still see politics as a zero-sum game.
The same problem threatens to undermine the Arab Spring, in countries that have overthrown autocrats as well as those where the opposition is still struggling.
Egypt, which has historic experience with parliamentary democracy, would seem to have a good chance at renewal. But the most organized political force in Egyptian politics is the Muslim Brotherhood, which appears poised to use democracy to promote religious discrimination against women, Christians and secular-oriented Muslims. Religious law does not brook any compromise. Nor is the Egyptian army, the power behind the scenes, comfortable with political dissent.
In Libya, and Syria, too, the fall of dictators will expose societies rife with tribal and religious differences and without experience in political compromise. These are societies in which powerful men and/or Scripture have dominated the life of the people. These societies lack experience with rule of law or political institutions that are independent of the regime.
And so, as the United States celebrates its birthday, we should be especially grateful for the bequest of our nation’s founders. Other nations seeking democracy must work their way through daunting societal and cultural thickets. We, however, have a legacy of tolerance and compromise that was worked out in Independence Hall. We must not squander it.
Americans can’t afford to let our politics become a zero-sum game.