WASHINGTON – What’s the connection between a nasty campaign for a US Senate seat in Oregon, the failures of the Arab Spring and the recent military coup in Thailand?
A common thread
The admittedly flimsy but real common element is the inability to create and/or maintain viable and vibrant democracies on the basis of a shared consensus on the proper balance between majority and minority rights, and an agreed definition of what should be the focus of policy discourse, (i.e.: what is the private v. the public sphere?). All this should yield a realistic definition of a “common good” that can and should be pursued via reasonable actions undertaken by elected and accountable officials.
Character assassination in an Oregon competition
In the US case, as reported by Kimberley Strassel in her WSJ “Potomac Watch” column, (A Democratic War on One Woman, May 23, 2014), we have yet another classic case of a political campaign almost entirely based on character assassination, and not on a debate on the issues.
While the moral integrity of any candidate should not be off-limits, a premeditated, carefully orchestrated effort to distort a few facts with the goal of painting a political opponent as an emotionally unhinged lunatic should not be allowed. And yet this is done, routinely.
In the case of this Oregon race, Dr. Monica Wehby, an accomplished pediatric specialist, has been portrayed by her clever Democratic opponent as an obsessed woman who became violent with her ex husband and who stalked her boy friend. In other words, an emotionally unstable woman who is known to act in a crazy way. Well, if this were true, people in Oregon would not want to vote for her.
The trouble is that it is not true. While there are some small pieces of evidence that may support this thesis, the portrait of the “unhinged woman” who —can you believe it?— wants to be Senator is the result of willful, carefully orchestrated manipulation.
Mitt Romney, the vulture capitalist
This case is not too different from the masterful ability of the Obama campaign, back in 2012, in successfully portraying opponent Mitt Romney as a greedy, bloodthirsty “vulture capitalist” who in his previous business career as the head of Bain Capital bought companies just to strip them of assets and then tossed them out, like garbage, without even a thought for the poor people who lost their jobs and benefits.
The campaign even managed to assert that former employees of companies bought and sold by Romney died of cancer because they had lost medical insurance on account of Romney’s actions. There you have it: the man who wanted to be President has got dead people on his conscience. Who could ever vote for him?
These happen to be examples coming from one side. But candidates in both parties do this, all the time. Before and during the 2012 Republican primaries, all the would-be Republican nominees did pretty much the same to one another. They openly used character assassination and willful manipulation of the record to discredit one another. (Indeed, long before Obama used the “vulture capitalist” image to discredit Romney, fellow Republicans had done the same during the long campaign leading to the convention).
Shameful conduct is perfectly OK, if it gets you elected
This is shameful and sad. Instead of debating policy choices, the goal is to destroy the personal credibility of your opponent by portraying him/her as morally unfit, and therefore unelectable.
This may be clever. However, this way the political process is profoundly degraded. It becomes a bad form of entertainment where only the wily and unprincipled people prevail. Are these the kinds of people we want in public office?
A debased democracy
As a result of these bad practices, we have debased our republican form of government, a form of government that can thrive only if it is founded on shared moral principles that together should create an agreed upon standard of conduct.
You may think that this corny, but I am convinced that a democracy in which most people think it is alright to behave with no honor, without paying any price for their bad behavior, is not going to be successful.
The cynical conclusion that “Oh well, this is the way it is…This is how you play the game, if you want to win” is simply unacceptable. And yet, at least implicitly, it is accepted. They all do it, because most of the time it works.
So much for our supposedly solid, established American democracy. If we look beyond our shores, the picture gets a lot worse.
The failed Arab Spring
I admit that I am among those who naively believed that something really good was going to come out of the “Arab Spring”. I really thought that those spontaneous, yet peaceful grassroots movements made out of people who demanded the end of tyranny would really create the premises for modern, non sectarian, secular democracies.
Well, we know now that it did not work out this way. As soon as they had a chance to express themselves, the Egyptians voted for the sectarian, profoundly illiberal and in the end disastrously incompetent Muslim Brotherhood led by President Mohamed Morsi. This led to chaos and eventually to a military coup led by General El-Sisi. And now the Egyptians are about to elected El-Sisi, the coup leader, as president. So, after political mayhem, confusion, lots of dead people and major economic losses, the Egyptians are about to go from the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, a general, to another general. Not great progress. In Tunisia there are similar problems. Not to mention post-Gaddafi Libya, a country now in perpetual chaos.
The military takes over in Thailand
In Thailand the military days ago intervened via a non violent coup supposedly to put an end to a never-ending political mess. Nobody reacted. May be most people feel that this is a good thing. Still, whatever the opinions on this action taken by the generals, it certainly proves that Thailand had a dysfunctional and profoundly immature democracy that in the end proved to be unworkable.
A real democracy is premised on shared values
In the final analysis, what does all this mean? Well, here is my assessment. A workable republic is premised on a lot more than a good constitution. It is premised on genuinely shared values. The American Founding Fathers, all of them children of the Enlightenment, “The Age of Light”, were taught to believe that most men are reasonable. They also believed that reason, constantly reinforced by new knowledge, would allow the creation and the sustainability of their fragile self-government experiment.
They did recognize the difficulties. They did acknowledge that passions and the pursuit of personal or factional interests would work against a workable democracy. But they were guardedly optimistic on its chances to survive and thrive.
A democratic ethos
The circumstances that allowed the success of the American Revolution are quite unique. But this does not mean that other democracies cannot flourish. They can.
But you cannot have a vibrant, self-confident democracy without a shared democratic ethos. And this has to include honorable behavior on the part of all and, more broadly, an understanding of what the purpose of government should be. Is government supposed to take care of just a few, essential tasks, or does it have a larger mandate? These are really big issues.
A constitution is not enough
It takes a long time and a judicious vetting of all plausible options to arrive at an enduring consensus on the purposes of government. The idea that we can set up a democracy today by drafting a constitution and holding elections, hoping that all the rest will be sorted out later on is crazy. By the same token, if the shared principles embraced by the founders are not nurtured by their successors, they will die.
There must be shared beliefs
The truth is that first of all we have to make sure that a society has shared beliefs. Then we can draft the rules. If the rules are not supported by values, they are worth nothing. This applies to Egypt and Thailand.
It also applies to Oregon, and to the US in general. Here in America we used to have strong shared principles. Right now I would say that they are weakly held, while in some places they are totally gone.