01 July 2013

Partisan democracy: failure is success

Protesters in Egypt have forced the army's hand. The nation's military reportedly has given President Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to reach some compromise with the opposition, or else the military itself will "announce a road map for the future."  This warning followed a weekend of protests that exceeded expectations, both in scale and in violence. This morning, a mob attacked the national headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's main supporters. It's said that the army wants to see a power-sharing arrangement, but it looks like the opposition isn't interested in Morsi or the Brotherhood having any share of power. They seem to see the Brotherhood as an incipient dictatorship, out either to impose sharia law or simply monopolize power. Many of the people on the streets this weekend probably have never trusted the Brotherhood, while some say that Morsi betrayed their trust. The justice of their claims is hard for an outsider to determine.

What we do know is that distrust is inevitable in the early years of any experiment in democratic republicanism, particularly if the experiment takes the form of partisan democracy as it has in Egypt. In the absence of the trust or deference that might come from true revolutionary solidarity, the first government of a new democracy will always be suspected of wanting to do away with democracy (i.e. elections) and ruling permanently. Partisan democracy sets a harsh standard for the success of a political system. It doesn't permit confidence in the system's stability until a government peacefully hands power over to an opposition party. By this standard, the proof of the success of the American experiment came in 1801, after John Adams left office as the first incumbent President defeated in a re-election campaign. Despite the confusion, under the original election rules, over the tie vote for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, there was no doubt that Adams had been defeated and no question of his attempting to hold on to power.

In general terms, partisan democracy sets an almost perverse standard: the system can't be proved a success until a government fails. In different terms, it can't be proved a success until the electorate has proven its ability to repudiate a failed leader. Objectively, this seems to mean that partisan democracy is not a success until it produces a bad government. Apologists will argue that bad governments are inevitable and that the best system is the one that replaces them in the most orderly and peaceful fashion. But setting the easy replacement of bad governments as the standard places a somewhat unfair pressure on the first government. If people aren't satisfied that their experiment in electoral democracy is a success until a government is replaced by an opposition, won't anxiety increase if a successful first government persists in power? Given the existence of partisanship and the mutually exclusive claims of ideologies, isn't it as inevitable as it is irrational that an objectively successful first government will be suspected of usurping, hijacking, betraying democracy the longer it persists in office, whether in the form of a popular individual leader or in the form of a popular mass movement? No matter how successful the first government proves to be, democracy won't appear secure from the partisan-democratic perspective until some sort of opposition takes over -- peacefully, of course.

Egypt appears to be an extreme case of partisan democracy in that a mass opposition seems never to have given Morsi a chance and has always presumed the worst of him. As a secularist myself, I can understand some of the distrust of a leader backed by a conservative religious movement. Nevertheless, Morsi was elected and the election is understood to have been fair. Despite that, Egypt is experiencing a kind of preemptive backlash against the pretensions of authoritarian democracy (i.e. "We won the election, so shut up!") seen around the world. At the heart of the problem is the perception that Morsi has the interests of only a part of Egypt's population in mind -- the suspicion that partisan democracy is a zero-sum game where the success of one party means the oppression of another. The suspicion may be justified, if only because partisanship poisons democracy at birth. The challenge for the world, as we watch Egypt's crisis, is to find a form or electoral democracy that can do without parties and the poison they carry -- to figure out whether representative government can be designed to encourage the rational compromise of interests, as James Madison hoped, without turning into an all-or-nothing battle of ideological parties. Madison's own record as a partisan is not encouraging, but as long as we presume interests more rational than ideologies, there should remain room for hope and action. 

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