Good Day for Democracy

Posted: Feb 21, 2004 12:00 AM

The struggle over the shape of the constituting assembly they're going to get in Iraq reminds us how firmly entrenched democratic fetishism is. Two hundred twenty-five years ago, the Founding Fathers argued over the protocols of the new America, and embarked on eight years of Articles of Confederation, which sought to contain with special concern the Federalists' appetite for giving greater power to the central assembly. Then we got the Constitution. Then we got a civil war. And, in between, a dozen constitutional amendments.

The Iraqis, especially the Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are debating over what should happen before June 30, as if it were Patrick Henry arguing with James Madison. The Americans had had almost two hundred years of experimentation with creeping self-government, the Iraqis, none. Democracy is, for them as for so many others, a "right" and also a talisman.

An American Sinologist sent to Vietnam in 1970 to verify the legitimacy of the elections, wrote in a learned journal that for most Indochinese, the idea of entering a polling booth and emerging from it having fashioned the life in which they would proceed to live was sheer thaumaturgy; for some of them, the professor wrote, a laughing matter, on the order of rubbing your left elbow with your right hand while tapping your left foot, expecting that a beneficent god would reward you with a fuller harvest.

Democracy has certainly had challenging days. It is not easy to sacramentalize the democratic vote given how close it can come. If 49 percent vote for Mussolini and 51 percent vote for John Stuart Mill, it is an act of faith to say that democracy was transubstantiated by that victory. If the undesirable candidate can come that close, why can't he occasionally win? As Per??id, and Hugo Ch?z. The Communists almost won Italy in 1948 and threatened France for years. Add the votes the Nazis got to the votes the Communists got in the Reichstag elections of July 1932 and you had a majority of Germans voting for dictatorship.

So the Iraqis should be counseled to treat democracy not as magic, but as a rudimentary approach to self-rule. We can point to the most recent democratic experience in the United States. We all stared at Howard Dean with wonder, amusement, awe, and, finally, apprehension. On February 19 Mr. Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that, in his opinion, Howard Dean was simply ? "nuts."

But how could Dean be "nuts" if Vice President Gore recommended him as the Democratic candidate? And Senator Harkin, in the critical Iowa race?

Meditating the question, some Americans perhaps thought that Mr. Dean's war cry after the Iowa vote suggested derangement of some kind. He was, after all, the candidate who wondered out loud whether President Bush had known ahead of time of the impending attack on New York City on September 11. Sober analysis of Dean's economic programs, universal health care, re-regulation of industry, a virtual end to free trade, heavy taxation ? all of that began turning some people into skeptics.

Still, he was the man toward the elevation of whom 3,500 young Americans traveled to Iowa from every corner of the United States. He was the favorite in virtually every poll taken over a period of three months. When he appeared on the cover of both Time and Newsweek it was generally thought that here was a populist destined to overturn American politics.

What then happened was a slide in Democratic public opinion from exhilarated, enthusiastic endorsement, in the direction of Mr. McEntee's judgment that Dr. Dean was, well, nuts. Democratic revaluation began to set in, and Governor Dean moved from overwhelming favorite to bedraggled third place.

That kind of corrective renewal bolsters faith in the tactical achievements of democratic practice. How can these be understood in Iraq, let alone appreciated and absorbed? The 20th century lunacy of one-man one-vote is a heavier potion of democratic elixir than the Iraqis can swallow. But can they be brought to understand that?