Without at least two major parties, each willing to let the other rule, you may have democracy in name but you won’t have it in fact. The willing passage of power from one side to the other is just part of this test. Leaders on both sides must know there are things they can’t say, and actions they can’t take, in the name of maintaining political power, or the system becomes a charade.
This message must also be internalized by their followers. The price of participation must be to acknowledge not just the legitimacy of dissent, but a willingness to give the dissenter power over you.
Thus I don’t believe Japan is a functioning democracy. The LDP has never surrendered power. I question whether Mexico is a functioning democracy. The PAN, which finally won power in 2000, has not yet proven it is willing to let go of it. The jury is also out on South Africa, and dozens of other countries where one party dominates but democracy is claimed as the governing ethos.
This is a dirty secret most political scientists don’t discuss. A dirtier secret of our most recent political Thesis, the Nixon-Reagan-Bush Thesis of Conflict, is that it rejects true democracy.
It’s in the Thesis’ founding myth, which is Watergate. The enemies’ list, the dirty tricks, even the break-in itself, all speak to the fact that Nixon-era Republicans did not consider the Democratic Party to be a legitimate governing choice. While many rejoiced on Nixon’s resignation, the plain fact is that the diseased heart of Nixonism still beat then, and still beats today. Dick Cheney, after all, was President Ford’s chief of staff.
I was criticized for pointing this out a few months ago but it bears repeating. Those who follow this Nixon myth don’t even name their opposition party. It’s not the Democrat party, but the Democratic Party. All those in the Democratic Party are Democrats, but there is no Democrat Party. This false naming convention is a product of the Nixon era, its adherents retain it, and it’s a good shorthand to whether the person you’re listening to, or whether you yourself, may suffer from Democrat-itus.
The diseases that have infected the American system have multi-generational origins. Slavery, which nearly destroyed America 145 years ago, had been lying coiled like a snake beneath a table at the Continental Congress. This disease also goes back generations.
Its origins lie in McCarthyism, a tactic that was made part of the Eisenhower Anti-Thesis by Democrat Pat McCarran, by Joe McCarthy and by Nixon himself, among others.
In the fever surrounding the start of the Cold War, McCarthy and his followers projected Stalin’s weaknesses into strengths, bought into them, and transformed them into an American political movement. The idea of widespread Communist infiltration, of the Democratic Party being "pink," was designed to make dissent from the McCarthy line into treason. It was designed to justify all kinds of speech, and deeds, done in the name of power that were inherently not just un-American, but anti-American, destructive to democracy itself.
Leaders like Nixon can’t take all the blame for this. The disease was in all their rabid followers, who would have thrown up other leaders had these men seen what they were doing and tried another way. There were some, early-on, who correctly identified McCarthyism as a disease, as a direct reflection of our enemies and thus as our enemy itself, in our midst. But their voices were drowned out. In the case of the House Un-American Activities Committee they were, in fact, brutally suppressed.
As with Watergate, the passing of McCarthy led many to believe this was just a fever. But viruses are biologically clever. The absence of symptoms is not the absence of a disease process. Dormancy is not death.
All this puts our system in terrible peril, with the germ of McCarthyism now at the heart of power in Washington. When the President of the United States says in public that the Democratic Party "wants the terrorists to win," or Democrats "don’t think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists," that is in fact terrorism. The intent of the President is to terrorize opponents into silence, and to terrorize his supporters into obedience.
In every political Thesis there is all kinds of excess. Some of it survives, and should, to become part of the next Anti-Thesis. Some of it, however, must be eradicated for the system to survive.
In the rise of the last Thesis, the legitimacy of mind-altering drugs, under the control of patients, was a part of the excess that was made politically illegitimate. Anyone who questions the control doctors now have over such substances, or who argues for new drugs to be added to the store of legal, self-prescribed medications, is automatically a crank, and will doubtless remain so for as far as we can see into the future. In the rise of the previous Thesis, the New Deal Thesis, it was the 130-year old idea of passive government, something at the heart of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking, that was discarded.
In the rise of the Next Thesis, the Open Source Thesis, it is McCarthyism in all its forms which must be discarded. That doesn’t just mean we vote certain people out of office. It means everyone accepts the boundaries of democratic thought. It means we redefine our democracy, not just as a Constitutional system, but as a system of norms, norms of speech and of action, tactics legitimate and illegitimate. Anyone who goes outside those norms becomes illegitimate, someone we will all treat as being Ted Kaczynski crazy.
The distance between that day and October 2006, with the lunatics in the halls of power, and in our heads, is an enormous political journey. But it is a journey that must be taken if we are to regain our democracy, and the trust of the world we have tossed aside these last five years. This is the heart of the current crisis.
We have to find a cure for Democrat-itus. And we have to spread that cure, which is the lesson of this era, to democracies throughout the world.
This is the legacy we owe our children. If you don’t play nice, you won’t get to play at all.