September 20, 2021
Our latest American Consequences magazine came out this weekend, and it just might knock some sense into you – either way, it’s cheaper than college and less traumatizing than a nun racking your knuckles. In the spirit of school being (sort of) back in session, staff writer Andrew Amundson interviews me about the broken state of American education. The CliffsNotes? More history and less Pronouns 101.
My friend, former classmate, and renowned author Geoffrey Norman shares his noble, futile attempt to challenge the iron-fisted stranglehold of mediocrity that is your local teachers’ union, i.e., the blackboard mafia.
And despite my better impulses, I have a two-fold tutorial for America, land of sore winners and sloppy losers. We must learn that we can’t force freedom at gunpoint and that the only game more brain-injury-inducing than the NFL remains the gauntlet of politics.
We have just made a heartless, brutal, cowardly, traitorous, panicky shambles of an escape from Afghanistan – with Joe Biden driving the getaway car. We had the time and the resources to make an orderly fighting retreat that could have protected our Afghan friends and allies. But…
Joe turned America chicken – turned us into a 50-foot-tall, 100-ton chicken that refused a chance to peck its way out of the barnyard when threatened by pint-sized Taliban weasels.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this? No.
Except for the eternal lesson about politicians. Here is a man elected on a platform of mushy love for humanity. And when things get tough, he turns out to have the same compassion for Afghan refugee families stuck in Kabul as his supposedly vicious, uncaring, and inhumane predecessor had for Latin American refugee families stuck on the border with Mexico.
Politicians care about themselves. Politicians don’t care about other people. And the other people they don’t care about include you, the voters, as well as Afghans and undocumented immigrants.
But we knew that.
Is there, however, some other lesson we can learn from our 20 years of military involvement in Afghanistan (not to mention from our multidecade – sometimes multigenerational – military involvement around the world)?
Unfortunately, yes. I say “unfortunately” because it’s a lesson we refuse to learn:
Democracy Cannot Be Imposed
Democracy can’t be imposed because democracy is, by definition, a voluntary association of persons.
Trying to impose democracy is like trying to impose love, which is a worthless endeavor. At its very worst, trying to impose democracy is like trying to impose sex, a horrible endeavor. There have been times when America’s democratic ideas have turned us into a global Andrew Cuomo.
These are harsh words about democracy. But there are harsh words to be said, as well, about love and sex. That doesn’t mean we don’t treasure affection and intimacy. And so do we, rightly, treasure democracy.
But love, sex, and majority rule have their proper times and places. We don’t love our children according to their standing in the Gallup Poll. The ballot box is not a dinner date. And the idea of sex with Congress is disgusting.
Democracy requires certain necessary preconditions. Thousands of books have been written about those necessary preconditions and to what extent they involve history, religion, economics, sociology, familial structure, custom, and tradition. But apparently nobody has read these books. Everybody is clueless. What makes some countries democratic and others not? How long is a piece of string?
There’s only one thing I know for sure about democracy: The essence of a democratic system is not in how we win elections but in how we lose them.
Political democracy endures only in countries where politics isn’t the only game in town, where politics doesn’t control every aspect of life, where politics is kept in proportion as just one (preferably small) part of our existence.
Except for (preferably rare) moments of true national crisis, politics is a sport. We get about as much out of “our candidate” winning as we do when “our team” wins the Super Bowl – which is a couple of celebratory beers that we pay for ourselves.
And this is as it should be. The election stakes aren’t supposed to be too high. It isn’t supposed to feel like we’re taking a risk with the amount of political power that’s on the table, with one wrong bet meaning we wind up with an autocracy or dictatorship. Excessive partisanship is a political version of gambling addiction. There should be a National Helpline for people who think politicians are going to solve their problems. Call 1-800-VOTE-OFF.
The losers in a democratic election should know for certain that there will be a rematch. Otherwise they’re too likely to take their ball and go home. (And come back with a gun? It’s been known to happen.)
Winners should also keep that rematch in mind. A thin margin of victory shouldn’t be followed by a fat wad of policy radicalism.
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The contest should be played fairly, according to the rules, and the opponents should shake hands when it’s over. Democratic politics is a sport, but it isn’t a blood sport. The dead buck doesn’t give a hoof bump to the hunter. If that’s what the hunter told you, you’re not in a democracy anymore.
We are still in one, even if it sometimes feels like just barely.
When I was a kid, the victorious tennis player jumped the net to shake hands with the vanquished. The loser didn’t rush over and try to raise the net and catch the winner in the crotch. The loser didn’t shout for his fans to come down out of the stands and rush the tennis court and maul the refs. And the winner didn’t stand there and, with the aid of his ball boys, keep firing 145 mph serves at the loser and his coaches and family and friends.
It is my fondest hope that America will go back to losing gracefully, although Afghanistan didn’t set much of a precedent. Maybe whatever the terrible aftermath will be in that poor benighted nation will teach us, at least, that the Taliban is what you get when your country’s fools and fanatics don’t know how to lose.
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