For the past few years, I’ve tended to commemorate Independence day by watching an episode of the HBO miniseries John Adams, since it combines two things I generally like doing: Fairly superficial intellectual exercises and watching TV. Normally, I go with the obvious episode — “Independence,” the one about the Continental Congress — but this year I had something else in mind.
A major thread in the show’s later episodes is the impact of the French Revolution on the new United States. It’s an especially timely look now, since just yesterday Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected leader was forced out in a military coup, and there’s a lot of mixed feelings about whether it’s a good thing or not.
It’s weird to think that it might be good for democracy when the armed forces depose the president and suspend the constitution, though it’s worth remembering that it was also the Egyptian military that forced out president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, along with the previous constitution. That was considered a revolutionary victory because Mubarak was a dictator whom nobody liked anymore and the constitution mainly existed to justify his perpetual hold on power. Mubarak was technically elected, but nobody could seriously call those elections democratic.
Mohamed Morsi and Egypt’s latest constitution have both shown authoritarian tendencies, but they both came through contested elections. This time, the problem is that the losers in those elections feel marginalized, they worry that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were consolidating power, and there wasn’t any obvious democratic recourse because they were at least partly right.
When Benjamin Franklin told the lady after the Constitutional Convention that America would have a republic “if you can keep it,” he hit on a challenge that’s still frustrating emerging governments today, the same problem that President Obama was getting at a few days ago when he reportedly told Morsi that “democracy is about more than elections.” That’s a lesson we learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine, and should have learned a lot sooner, because the first election is easy. The hard part is convincing the losers of that election to give up power without giving up on the whole political system, and convincing the winners to give those losers a chance to take it back.
We tend to talk about the Founding Fathers in these really vague and unhelpful terms most of the time, but their existence really did have a critical role in the success of the American experiment. The fact that the new American government was devised by a team of intellectuals and elites — people nonetheless disagreed on matters as basic as whether independence was even a good idea, and had years to argue about them — resulted in a government that was able to recognize and correct its own flaws, if sometimes painfully slowly. George Washington may have decided to leave office less for noble reasons than because he was tired of being unpopular, but he still didn’t try to wipe out his critics or make himself a monarch, and he established that “Mr. President” was the only fancy title he needed.
In France, by contrast, the revolution was a much more genuine popular uprising, the problem being that the general public, having been virtually no authority or say in government by the previous regime, had basically no idea how to run a country, much less take it over and reinvent its entire political system. And for revolutionary leaders, they got Robespierre and the Napoleon.
Egypt is caught somewhere in between. It has some organized political parties — for better or worse; the most organized faction was the Muslim Brotherhood — and there’s the huge professional army that, until recently at least, commanded near-universal respect. But if people think they can overthrow the government anytime it does something they don’t like, then they’ll never get a government that really works. And having tanks on the street doesn’t really guarantee an open government.
Americans got through eight years of George W. Bush and four-plus years of Barack Obama, even though not many people voted for both of them, because we have a certain level of faith that if we lose one political fight, there’s a good chance we might win the next one. That’s the real great accomplishment of our political system, and the really revolutionary idea behind it all: A regular, orderly mechanism to replace leaders who no longer serve the interests of the people they govern, and a public that’s willing to tolerate them until the next election comes around.