Not for a Faux Democracy

Suzanne Fields

2/11/2011 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Democracy is more than a word. The protesting Egyptians and the watching world are learning that between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood stand a lot to overcome. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got one thing right: "It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy."

Hope and change are not the same thing. Big talk and big deeds are not the same thing, either, as our own experienced taught. Not everyone believed the great Philadelphia experiment of 1776 would succeed, an experiment born of hope not experience. Not everyone believes now that what was wrought then will endure.

Despite all the high hopes that brought Barack Obama to the White House, a lot of people here and elsewhere think he's presiding over a weakened and dispirited America. Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" has become, for these doubters, late afternoon.

To take advantage of his invoking a cliched Sputnik moment, certain hard choices lie ahead. Federal spending must be cut -- "slashed" may be a better word -- and the private sector must be unleashed to get things moving again. This goes athwart Obama's instincts, but government must be put on a crash diet (something not included in Michelle's anti-obesity crusade).

The president observed, accurately, in his State of the Union addressthat American competitiveness depends on better-educated workers and a stronger incentive to succeed. This can only happen when bad teachers with the seniority that makes them fireproof are dispatched to wherever bad teachers go. The president's new emphasis on the decline of learning comes with a new study that reveals that two-thirds of fourth-graders fail to show proficiency in science; six of 10 eighth and 12th graders perform poorly in science. They're not doing well in history, either.

How we change this for the better requires a debate, and whether it's civil or passionate isn't as important as getting the debate started. The question is whether we have the stuff and imagination to transcend what divides us, and that depends on how we assess who we are.

Claude Fischer, for 40 years a liberal sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, takes note in his new book that the American character has been forged by the pride Americans take in themselves and their accomplishments. "There is an American cultural center; it's assimilative pull is powerful; and it is distinctive or 'exceptional,'" he writes in "Made America: A Social History of American Culture and Character."

He meticulously documents three and half centuries of the American experience -- from colonial days to the present -- and tells how the nation's natural abundance has been the engine of growth, forming the national character reflecting a belief in expanded opportunity. We have far more than our ancestors could have dreamed of -- more material goods, better health, greater access to information and a greater ability to use it.

He observes that the earlier belief that America is the exceptional society, as Abraham Lincoln expressed it at Gettysburg, has been badly ruptured by recent historians who focus only on the nation's flaws, poisoning an entire generation of students.

Over the past four decades, historians have catalogued the details of our devils, attempting to exile the better angels of our nature to the trash bin. Teachers have recast a "shining city on the hill" to a befouled environment where Indians were murdered, Africans enslaved, workers repressed, immigrants exploited. The unique American enthusiasm to right wrongs is overlooked or ignored as unimportant.

Fischer is something of a "fellow traveler" with Alexis de Tocqueville, finding the 19th century Frenchman's insights into American "volunteerism" -- an ability to sustain individualism in social groups -- as the key to progress: "Equality in the American context is not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity, treatment and freedom."

The Founding Fathers were educated men smart enough to draw on the sentiments and innate sense of justice of the common (and uneducated) man for support. Americans have had the willingness to mingle comfortably in neighborhood, regional and ethnic groups, charitable and political institutions that cut across economic lines. What enables cohesion is the "can-do" attitude of self-reliance.

The most recent phenomenon that illustrates this thesis is the explosion of the tea parties. Their rugged, ragged organizing principles have forged alliances similar to those of the early American colonists who worked toward the common goal of limited government organized to guarantee maximum individual liberty. The tea parties are moving the debate today, reminding us of the vitality of our own democracy. There's nothing faux about that.