Last Tuesday at noon, the presidency passed from one tired, oft-maligned party to the opposition, led by a candidate widely hailed as a breath of fresh air for American politics. Despite a slip-up in the administration of the oath of office, Barack Obama did indeed become our new president, and the Bush administration was scattered to the four winds shortly thereafter. And that was that.
Partisan politics, lobbyists, Beltway insiders, late-night comedy and American democracy will go on. What most people in this country and the free world (now under new management) may not realize is the sheer improbability of the event they have just witnessed.
For the first 12 years of its existence, the United States was more or less ruled by one party, the Federalists. There were ups and downs, of course, but the process was successfully underway.
In 1800, something happened that terrified the Founders and political thinkers in the country: Thomas Jefferson was elected president. Jefferson’s election represented the first time power would be transferred from one faction to another (from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans). Few were sure if a bloodless transition was possible.
The moment of truth came and went without incident, however, and the 40-something percent of modern America that bestirs itself to vote every four years – often with the explicit intention of punishing the ruling party – now takes for granted the peaceful transition of power. Americans are reasonably and rightly assured that the outgoing party will not stage a coup or contest the incoming administration’s legitimacy.
With two centuries of democracy under their belts, Americans have grown rather complacent about its workings, values and inherent “exportability.” We’re a bit too confident in the absence of any cog in the machine of democracy.
The pros and cons of this complacency were both on display last Tuesday. On a positive note, our expectation of peaceful transition is so deep as to have attained a measure of causality. Our expectations have shaped our political reality – there was never much doubt that things would go smoothly.
The negatives were reflected in the inaugural address, in which Obama acknowledged the ramifications of America’s recent efforts to export democracy to other countries. Americans have become so confident in the efficacy and universality of our political system that we have tried to brand it, mass-produce it and ship it all over the world – as if democracy were a pair of sneakers. We now find ourselves in the ironic position of hearing our new president reassure the rest of the world that American democracy is not only still going strong, but that it is safe for the world.
There is no need and no time to revert to isolationism – American democracy can and should be a positive example and guiding light to the peoples of the world. Freedom should be regarded as a basic human right. What America must remember, however, is that true democracies are both unique and homegrown. No two democracies can be alike because each must evolve to fit the people and places it comes from, and the people must want it to evolve in the first place.
We must also be mindful that democracies are usually slow and messy in their beginnings, just as our own was and, in many ways, continues to be. We must respect that messiness, for it is one of the signs of a healthy democracy. If we are to take any lesson from Tuesday’s historic and memorable spectacle, let it be this: None of this could have happened without two centuries of gradual development and hard work, and we must not expect the rest of the world to have similar success in a year or even a generation.
Rather, we should recognize Tuesday for what it was – a near-perfect example of all that is right and good about America and a worthy example to set for the world. Attempting to export our systems and circumstances from within has proven quixotic and costly. Evincing genuine desire in other nations to emulate us – without using force or making democracy non-negotiable – will do much more to further our ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Colin Steele is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.
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