Do as we say, not as we do: A note to democracy advocates worldwide from America

Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere, We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize. We ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,

We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.

We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?

Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,

We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.

We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?

We are sorry our display of the spineless, visionless, shrill, embarrassing debasement of our political system is so ill-timed given your purposes … but by now you must realize that while we are pretty good at giving speeches about democracy promotion, we’ve never been so great at following through with support for your efforts.

Ok, maybe that’s not really the best apology … suggesting you are to blame for believing too much in a country that almost always brings down that which it lifts up. Let me try another tack: Perhaps you can turn all this to your benefit if you simply change your perspective.

Perhaps the trick is in not looking at America as a beacon of democracy anymore but rather as a kind of a lighthouse perched up on the rocks of where not to go, of what not to be, warning you to avoid our example.

Certainly, when you were in Tahrir Square, you did not risk death or injury to bring into power the Egyptian Michele Bachmann. Surely as you were marched into a Chinese prison you did not accept the separation from your family or the loss of your freedom to one day make it possible for your president to essentially sit on the sidelines for a year letting it come to this … a year in which for most of the time he led a party controlling both houses of Congress … and then to have him brazenly assume the stance of an outsider, trying to side with Americans against "Washington." Surely, while dodging friendly fire along some dusty Libyan road you assume your people know better than buying into that kind of nonsense.

(You may have heard of the term "truthiness" which was invented by American comedian Stephen Colbert. It’s not the actual truth but a self-serving approximation of it concocted by politicians to advance their interests. It has a cousin that the president and the top members of the U.S. Congress are embodying these days which might be called "leaderiness." It’s not actual leadership but, like the once-popular stage show "Beatlemania," an incredible simulation. It enables politicians to strike leader-like poses without actually displaying any of the vision or values or courage required of actual leaders.)

With some luck you can do better. But here’s the reality: In all likelihood you won’t. In all likelihood you will come to see living with the asylum of day-to-day politics as the price you pay for the other freedoms and benefits democracy brings. Soon you will do as we do and discount the foolishness and the lies and accept that democracy seldom elevates great men or women to office, but its pretty good at reflecting the character of the people to whom it is entrusted — which is to say not the politicians, but the voters.

Of course, the problem with that is, if the voters are idiots, you’re really screwed.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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