Finally, the national conversation about democracy is relatively mature and serious. Save for some TV news anchors, just about everyone seems to understand that democracy is a tricky thing.
That skepticism was hard earned. The last decade provided painful lessons for everyone, on both sides of the ideological aisle. Liberals, who were once naively optimistic about democracy promotion, turned dour when President Bush became naively optimistic about it. And then supporters of Bush's freedom agenda learned a tough lesson from, among other things, the disastrous-but-democratic elections that put a terrorist junta in charge of the Gaza Strip.
Hence the irony of so many small-"d" democrats quietly celebrating the fact that Egypt is living under undemocratic martial law, rather than democratic Islamic law as interpreted by a Muslim Brotherhood caliphate.
This new consensus -- that democracy is about more than mere lever-pulling on Election Day -- is progress.
Democracy is essential to a liberal order, but it is less important than the rule of law, honest courts, individual rights (including property rights), and the institutions -- legal and cultural -- that nurture them.
George W. Bush famously proclaimed that the desire for freedom burns in every human heart. I'm sympathetic to such notions and the statecraft that drives such pronouncements. But that doesn't get us very far. What drives the urge for liberty?
The notion that we all crave personal liberty is a fairly new notion, historically. Most of the calls for freedom over the centuries have been in the context of national, not personal, liberation. The 20th century began with an atrocious war allegedly fought over something called "self-determination," but the "self" in question wasn't the id, ego or super-ego, or the individual soul. The "self" in "self-determination" referred to the captive nations of Europe.
Freedom fighters have generally battled for the collective right to fly a national flag, not the individual right to burn one. Conservatives loved the movie "Braveheart," with all of its beautiful language about freedom, but it's worth remembering that the freedom the Scots fought for was the freedom to replace the authoritarian traditionalism of the English with the authoritarian traditionalism of the Scots.
The great change, as Francis Fukuyama chronicled in his book "The End of History and the Last Man," has been the evolution of individual self-determination. Fukuyama borrows a term, "thumos," from the ancient Greeks to explain the transformation. Thumos, or "spiritedness," encompasses the instinct for justice, respect, integrity.