Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In the House last night

Regardless of whether one is a Democrat, Republican or Independent, last night's State of the Union address underscored something I think we do take for granted in the United States, namely that we live in a stable democracy. Sure it's flawed and under constant threat from the insidious encroachment and corrupting effects of 'big money', unscrupulous politicians and lobbyists--most of whom are from my profession, unfortunately. But nevertheless it is a democracy that functions and we are free to pursue happiness and do as we please so long as we do not act outside the boundaries of the rule of law. And yes, there are other models of democracy, but I do believe the American model is one of the most tested, vibrant and, because of America's current position as the sole superpower, subject to extreme vitriol and ridicule when its appointed leaders make mistakes.

Last night as I watched George W. Bush walk into the chamber of the House of Representatives, we could see the embodiment of our democratic institutions. The three pillars of American democracy--judges of the Supreme Court in their flowing black robes, members of both chambers of the legislature, and members of the executive as represented by Bush and his cabinet--were gathered to hear about the state of the union. For the first time, George W. Bush entered the chamber with another political party in control of the legislature and paid his respects to a Madame Speaker, the first woman ever to be third in line to the Presidency. That shift in political power had occurred at the ballot box and not the battle field. He delivered his speech in a more conciliatory tone than in the past and the opposition gave standing ovations when they agreed with what he said and remained respectfully silent when they didn't. The shift in power and gathering of the three branches occurred just as the founding fathers intended all those years ago.

I think we forget all these basic truisms because we're so focused on the detritus of living our lives and forget about the Constitution. I think we forget that we are all Americans at the end of the day regardless of our political persuasion and that our objectives are the same----at least the majority constituting fair-minded, rational Americans--that we are working for the greater good and prosperity of America and for all Americans, working to make the world a better place to live, that we know our system is flawed and corrupt and constantly has to be tweaked and improved, but its framework is rock solid and does work. Coming from Northern Ireland, I've seen another type of democracy firsthand that doesn't work because one of the political parties refuses to participate in the process with integrity because they want back their absolute power, want to bring down the government. They adhere to a warped ethos of 'no surrender' and, as a result, no true and lasting progress can be made for the benefit of the citizenry as a whole. In short, they are not mindful and do not care for the betterment of their population as a diverse whole.

The same applies to the Middle East whose leaders regard democracy as a word to be feared and spurned except in the case of a smattering of states. Often, I try to imagine Arab populations watching the results of an American election coming in on election night and wonder whether they feel a sense of awe when they see political power transfer from one party to the other and next morning see us getting up and going about our business as normal. I also try to imagine what they feel when they watch the State of the Union address and see the three branches of government gathered in the chamber. This year, I wondered too about their thoughts when they saw Nancy Pelosi stand up and wield the gavel to bring the House to order. I wondered if these concepts are so alien they don't even think about it, or do they hunger for their own version of democracy. Maybe they're not even allowed to see the American political process in action, although I believe the totalitarian regimes such as that existing in Saudi Arabia and Iran can't restrict the programming on television as they used to do.

In any event, I'm happy to have been born and live in democracies no matter how flawed. But I really do wonder what the everyday Arab thinks...

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