While we enter a new year when Americans will elect a new president, it seems like a good time to highlight a guiding Jeffersonian value. Although the concept of 'our Jefferson' invites us each to discover our own Jefferson or Jeffersonianism, it also maintains that there are some core Jefferson values that need to be honored. One of the most powerful of these values is belief, even spiritual faith, in democracy.
As a writer I'm always interested in the use of words. Because of the richness and complexity of the English language the words "spreading democracy" can have at least two meanings. If spreading is used as an adjective, then we are saying that democracy is spreading, like a spreading vine. If spreading is used as a verb, then we are speaking of an effort to spread democracy, to increase and expand it. I believe that TJ's views on democracy embraced both meanings. He thought that democracy would spread and that America would assist in the spreading. America would be a model for spreading democracy.
Since TJ's time the spread of democracy around the world has become probably the most extraordinary event in the history of the human race. It is certainly the most extraordinary political event. Think about that. It has transformed every aspect of human society. Science, religion, business, culture, the arts, human rights, sports, law, and government all have been changed through the democratic process. And while democracy has origins deep in human history, it really began to take off with the founding of the American nation. Last month alone, we have seen the issue of elections stir the people of Venezuela, Kenya, Thailand, Russia, the nations of the former Soviet Union, and Pakistan, and that's just a partial list. Every region, every continent, every religious group, every political orientation, every racial and ethnic group, has entered the fray. And a fray it is as these nations demonstrate the difficulty of creating a truly democratic society. Yet, people around the world keep trying. As for the conscious act of spreading democracy, all these nations have been deliberately impacted by the American and British models of democratic government.
Two hundred years ago TJ predicted this, this 'spreading democracy' as both a description and as an action. They are intertwined. Democracy spreads, in part, because the United States spreads it. Yet more importantly, the spread of democracy is not a purely conscious act, or a fortunate accident, it's not even a political choice, it is a force of nature, a force of human nature. Many of the founding fathers knew this, while many of us have forgotten or never understood this aspect of democracy. Many of us today see democracy as one political system among a number of choices -- socialism, authoritarianism, communism, Islamic government, capitalism, and monarchy. In fact, some of these systems are more economic than political, but the point is that democracy (or a republic) is seen as a choice, an option, among several. Americans and Western society clearly see democracy as the best system, but many aren't sure it's for everybody, for every nation.
During a recent conversation I was reminded of two points I've previously heard about Iraq. The first is that Iraq was of collection of tribal areas pieced together as a nation by the British, and second, it has no history or experience with democracy. Although I'm not sure point two is accurate, I accepted the premises. What bothered me was that they were being offered as a reason why democracy might not work in Iraq. The clear implication was that Iraqi society was somehow deficient of what is required for democracy. I think we both sensed an uncomfortable element of condescension in the position he stated, as if Americans can do it, but not Iraqis. Doubting Iraq's, Iran's, and Arab nation's ability to create a democratic society seems commonplace today. Yet, for just one example, is Iraq any more tribal or patched together by the British then Kenya, and they just had an election where despite many difficulties turnout was high, as eight to 10 million Kenyans, many waiting for hours, voted in their national election. The turmoil that followed suggests the challenges and passions surrounding the democratic process, even in a country with many years of experience. Meanwhile, despite such obvious difficulties many Americans profess such belief in democracy that they can justify trying to force it upon other nations.
While the political climate heats up in this election year the time has come to bring Jefferson and Jeffersonian democracy more fully into the debate about Iraq and democracy. For TJ the subject of democracy was not about a political system, but about the human condition. He didn't believe in democracy because it happened to be the best choice among several systems. He believed in it because it sprung from our God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights derived from our natural desire for freedom, which also came from the "Benevolent Creator", as he called it. Those rights carried with them the duty to establish and exercise those rights in society. TJ believed that each of us possesses an inherent desire to have the freedom to live our lives as we choose, and because we possess a moral sense that contains compassion for others, we desire that our personal freedom coexist with the freedom of others. Even selfishly we defend other's freedom to protect our own. In other words, democracy is an expression of a basic human instinct -- the instinct to seek freedom for ourselves and for others.
Certainly, TJ identified various conditions needed for democracy to be established and grow. As Lincoln said, Jefferson stated the axioms of a free society, which is why many political scientists and politicians have called our system Jeffersonian democracy. But among those conditions there was none regarding how the borders of the nation were formed. Indeed, isn't that always an arbitrary process subject to change by purchase (the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska ) or war (all of Europe)? Nor did a nation need to be ethnically homogeneous. Nor did TJ believe that a society had to have previous experience with a democratic system. That would require putting the cart before the horse. Even in his day, he thought that monarchies could be transformed into republics.
A few years ago 12 million Iraqis voted despite threats from the terrorists/insurgents to not do so, and they had no previous experience with free elections. The leaders of this fragile country daily risk their lives to move the nation towards freedom. While not all their motives are pure, every single person who serves in some official capacity faces the constant threat of injury or death by those who live in abject fear of the power of a democratic society. I am in complete awe of these brave people. They cannot look to their neighbors, except perhaps Turkey, to see the likely benefits of their efforts and yet they struggle on. The benefits of their efforts may not be fully experienced until the next generations arise. Yet they struggle on.
If anyone doubts the wisdom of TJ's belief in an innate desire for freedom and democracy, then take a look around the world and especially take a closer look at Iraq today. And don't just look at what they have failed to accomplish in less than five years, rather look at what they're accomplishing everyday. TJ understood that creating a new democracy was not ever going to be easy. In fact, his election has been called the Revolution of 1800 by many scholars who think it wasn't until 24 years after the Declaration of Independence, including eight years of war, that the United States securely established a truly democratic society.
Regardless of your political views, your party affiliation, and your opinion about the proper role of American troops, I invite you to enter the new political year rejoicing in the human spirit of freedom that is being demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in fledgling democracies around the world.
If you believe in the incredible power of the human spirit to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then rejoice in and support the valiant efforts of the Iraqi people to create a new society. Might they fail? Of course, and that fact of itself proves the courage of their efforts. Nothing more eloquently and dramatically expresses the justification for a Jeffersonian faith in democracy and the human spirit.
I'm guessing you have an opinion or two about democracy and Iraq. I'd love to hear them.
It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they had been so long deprived, will be accompanied with violence, with errors, and even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we must pray for the end. 1795