Democracy, like good nutrition, requires balance; one ingredient no matter how delicious, be it steak or free elections, is not enough. As Americans celebrate the 237th anniversary of their remarkable experiment in popular government, landmark court cases and legislative initiatives are demonstrating the country’s complex mechanisms for reform and renewal. Meanwhile, the Egyptian upheaval shows that democracy entails more than having the occasional open election – or popular protest.
Nevertheless, the same naïve Western impulse that welcomed the Arab spring initially mourned Mohamed Morsi’s fall as the demise of Egyptian “democracy.” A New York Times editorial called Morsi “Egypt’s first democratically elected leader,” suggesting it “would be tragic if Egyptians allowed the 2011 revolution that overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak to end with this rejection of democracy.” Playing to these Western dupes, Essam el-Haddad, Morsi’s foreign policy adviser, warned : “The message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims.” All these crocodile tears mourning Egypt’s lost “democracy” forget that totalitarian democracies are like a political variation of what kids today call an Invisible Pink Unicorn, an oxymoron whose true color cannot be ascertained because it is unreal and unseen.
Despite winning parliamentary power legitimately last year, the Muslim Brotherhood viewed democracy as an expedient tool not an absolute value. Democracy, like marriage, only lasts if it is a commitment not a whim. Barack Obama and his administration must not be fooled by superficial rhetoric or sham politics. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously fanatic organization with a totalitarian approach to politics.
Totalitarians abhor ambiguity and opponents. They will sacrifice anything and everyone to serve their broader aims, in this case an extremist Islamist vision, combining Western fascism with a distorted reading of Islam. A totalitarian democrat is like a miserly philanthropist, which helps explain why this push-me-pull-you Egyptian regime failed. Morsi’s political fanaticism along with his government’s economic incompetence triggered the mass protests backed by army violence.
The same Westerners who fall for sham Islamist democracies like Hamas-run Gaza, Iran’s Islamic theocracy, and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt are those most likely to question Israel’s right to exist because it is not a perfect democracy. The false god of identity politics, the distorted lens of political correctness, and a pathological anti-Zionism con far too many “intellectuals” and radical leftists into celebrating emergent Islamist “democracies” while repudiating Israel. These hypocrites usually exaggerate the importance of Third World elections, while overlooking other essential democratic dimensions such as free speech, an independent press, open political parties, and a vibrant civil society.
When judging Israel, these pushovers suddenly become tough graders. While labeling any Islamic regime that has an Election Day “democratic,” no matter intimidating or unfree the political culture might be, any perceived lapses – or anticipated lapses if some Knesset backbencher proposes an extreme bill – trigger lamentations about Israel’s declining democracy. Hamas can silence dissidents. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood can bully opponents. But Israel cannot have one of its periodic dustups about religion and state, majority rule and minority rights, or individual freedom versus collective security without inviting apocalyptic pronouncements – and self-righteous “I-told-you-so”s.
Israeli democracy, like American democracy, is like a jumbo jet with multiple engines, backups and fail-safe systems, than the kind of single engine populist touches displayed in Morsi’s Egypt. Functioning democracies combine widespread popular legitimacy with a vigorous culture of criticism, resulting in tremendous structural stability buttressed by the true genius of a working democracy, overlapping self-corrective mechanisms.
With the US Supreme Court making bold decisions about gay marriage, and the US Senate passing what could become landmark immigration legislation – at a time when everyone is complaining about Washington’s sclerosis – democracy’s peaceful dynamism is working. America is changing ideologically, demographically, socially, and culturally. Its governing institutions are adjusting, sometimes leading the change, and sometimes incorporating them, for better and worse.
Even Americans who are uncomfortable with gay marriage or the proposed 13-year-process for legalizing illegal immigrants, can take pride in this kinder, gentler America, this looser, less exclusive America. The legal changes confirm the sociologist Alan Wolfe’s insight, that “Thou Shalt Not Judge Thy Neighbor,” has become Americans’ eleventh commandment.
Yet as America improvises a Republic of Everything, it must not become a Republic of Nothing. Today’s diverse, open, forgiving America also has two million prisoners, four out of ten babies born to unmarried women, and millions of unhappy, alienated, self-medicating, distracted citizens.
With everything disposable including family, Americans need more grounding, stronger moral fiber. The old morality frequently propped up prejudices we now reject. But a life just based on tolerating others lacks internal coherence, an effective ethical compass, or the social adhesive necessary to make a nation great.
Americans should worry about the thinness of their collective cultural identity, the transience of many of their concerns, their addiction to trendiness and technology. Building a great nation requires a commitment to big ideas, transcendent thoughts, and altruistic ideals. Some of America’s greatest ills today, including the rising debt, a declining work ethic, a tidal wave of selfishness, an obsession with popular culture, a compulsion to consume, an inability to compromise or plan or save or sacrifice, stem from today’s cultural and ideological flimsiness.
Israel could use extra doses of American liberalism, expansiveness, and pluralism – but America could use more Israeli depth, traction, and commitment. In identity terms, the thinness of things can be liberating and welcoming; the thickness of things can be grounding and ennobling. Meanwhile, Egypt is lower down the national needs hierarchy, craving stability, freedom, mutual trust.
Both individual and national greatness require a balance. A functioning, ever-improving democracy is a republic of something, using common values to root and stretch the citizenry.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. He is the author, most recently, of Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!