In 1961, I was in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) when the country gained its independence from Britain. During one of the celebrations, I was seated at a table in Dar es Salaam among a number of dignitaries, one of them an elected official from Nigeria. He was a pleasant man and we talked amicably about the changes occurring on the African continent. The atmosphere was ripe with hope.
During that conversation, the Nigerian leaned toward me to ask a confidential question: Why, he wondered, did the United States tolerate a two-party system? After an election, why does the winning party allow the losing party to exist?
I was surprised by the question as it was the first time I’d been invited to look at our democracy from the outside. I saw his logic but failed, I think, to increase his understanding of our messy form of governance.
Those memories flooded back to me after reading an essay in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs: “The Life of the Party” by Eric X. Li. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist who lives in Shanghai. In his remarks, he draws several comparisons between what he called China’s system of “meritocracy” and the United States, where, for example, political candidates endowed with money often defeat others more qualified. Much of what he wrote got my head nodding. I do admire the way China is lifting millions of people from abject poverty into economic stability.
On the other hand, LI has misperceptions about our democracy. For example, like my Nigerian dignitary of the past, he equates disquiet with failure. Citing an 82% disapproval rating we’d given our Congress in a recent poll, he concludes that our government is “crumbling.” (Ibid, pg. 46)
How does one convince outsiders that our “brawls” are a peaceful mechanism for change? If we give ourselves a poor report card, it doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It signals the opposite. It signals the nadir point of a pending rebirth.
I can’t imagine what sort of a report card we would have given ourselves during the American Civil War or our struggles during the Civil Rights Movement; but we survived those upheavals and are a better for them. Debate and self criticism, these are the strengths of a democracy. China should try it.
(1989 Art Student creates plaster image of the Statue of Liberty during Tineman Square uprising —www.Boxston.com)