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.