Great Losers in Recent History

No, this is not a post about long-suffering Cubs fans, who may not be suffering much longer.  That would be a fun blog post, though.

This post is about political losers.  You see, my favorite part of the election season is listening to the loser on election day.


After months and months of campaigning in which candidates tear each other up, declare that the country will completely collapse if the other gets elected, and paint one another with half-truths and misinformation, we finally get to election day.  One of them wins.  And the other loses.

Then comes my favorite part:  the concession speech.

We have this custom in American democracy:  when it is apparent who has won, the loser of an election calls up the winner, has a brief conversation, and then gives a speech.

And what happens in that speech, after all those months of bitter fighting?

Well, consider these excerpts from the concession speeches of our last four presidential losers:

Mitt Romney: one of the Good Losers

Mitt Romney: one of the Good Losers

Mitt Romney’s concession speech, 2012:

“I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory…His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters….This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation…..”




John McCain: An Impressive Loser

John McCain: An Impressive Loser

John McCain’s concession speech, 2008:

“A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love…..In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”


John Kerry: Another Good Loser

John Kerry: Another Good Loser

John Kerry’s concession speech, 2004:

“I spoke to President Bush and I offered him and Laura our congratulations on their victory.

We had a good conversation, and we talked about the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together.”



Al Gore: As a loser, he might have been almost John Adams-esque.

Al Gore: As a loser, he might have been almost John Adams-esque.

Al Gore, concession speech on December 13, 2000 (after more than a month of electoral controversy):

“Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States….I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we’ve just passed…I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country…And while there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us….”


Two Republicans and two Democrats.

Embedded in their statements are these elements, found in many concession speeches:

1)  They congratulate the winner.

2)  They indicate that both sides need to work for the good of the country.

3)  They mention, or imply, that the system of democracy is more important than their election victory or their political party.

In other words, the concession speech is where we most clearly get politicians articulating elements of the loyal opposition.  And as I have argued, the concept of the loyal opposition is critically important for a healthy democracy.

John McCain’s 2008 speech (which is when I first fell in love with concession speeches) and Al Gore’s 2000 speech are particularly good.  They are worth reading in their entirety and they are not long.

In fact, as I looked these speeches up, (and I could have gone back further in history, but, well, it’s a blog) I gained a level of respect for Al Gore that I did not have before.  I have indicated how many other societies might react to a disputed presidential election like ours in 2000.  Al Gore, however, wonderfully articulated the fundamental principles behind the rule of law, democracy and the loyal opposition.  Consider these other parts of his speech:

“But in one of God’s unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny. Indeed, that history gives us many examples of contests as hotly debated, as fiercely fought, with their own challenges to the popular will. Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution. And each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation…..While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.”

These are great points.

(OK, Gore overlooked the 1860 election when the victor and the vanquished both took up arms and five years later we looked around stunned that we had killed 750,000 of our own people).

Still, almost every time in American history both the victor and vanquished have accepted the results peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation.

I do hope that whoever loses this year’s presidential race will give a concession speech with these elements in it.  It is not guaranteed, for there is such a thing as a bad loser.  And some people lose sight of, or don’t understand the importance of these fundamental principles.  Given the very nasty and bitter comments from both sides in the second debate, I have to confess that I’m not entirely sure either Trump or Clinton would do this.

Still, the final question of the debate on Sunday night, which came from an undecided voter named Karl Becker, got at this issue.  Becker has become something of a folk hero, which shows that many Americans long for a more civil and respectful campaign as we debate our differences. He asked this: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Both Clinton and Trump actually said something positive about each in other.

So there is hope for this year’s concession speech.





Mud-slinging. Does it matter?

If you are like me, you know that in ordinary, daily life, it is very difficult to offer constructive criticism in a civil and respectful manner.  And it is darn near impossible in two areas of American public life:  political elections and anonymous comment sections on the internet.

Granted, there are people, some of them are even creatures called politicians, who are able to disagree in a thoughtful, civil and constructive manner.  But it is very hard, partly because many voters do not pay attention to this kind of discourse.  The temptation to revel in the mudslinging thrown by “our people” is far too alluring to many of us.

On the other hand, political mud-slinging is not just distasteful to many Americans, it tempts many to avoid political engagement as much as possible.  That is another unfortunate consequence.

So, wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to that time when elections weren’t characterize by insults, intentionally misleading characterizations and outright lies about the opposing candidate?

And that time would be…..when?

How about the 1800 election?  In my last post I gave props to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for how they handled the election.  Good, healthy losing.  Good, healthy winning.

But there was more to that election.  As the first presidential election in which clear factions had formed in competition for the top position, some rather outrageous things were said by politicians and media leaders.  Ordinary people believed a lot of these outrageous things.

For your entertainment and increased understanding of the world, I have a video that catches some of the spirit of the rhetoric from the 1800 election:

Several notes:

1. For the historically gullible among you:  neither the internet nor television actually existed in 1800.

2. The quotes here are edited and taken out of context, but they do reflect the flavor of what was said and some actual phrases that were used.

3. The 1800 election, like all elections, also produced people who gave thoughtful, respectful and constructive criticism.

4. Jefferson and Adams did not actually say these things publicly because candidates did not actually campaign publicly then — they let their supporters campaign for them.  (Hey, wouldn’t that be great?) The mudslinging comments in 1800 were from their supporters. (OK, second thoughts:  maybe we don’t want to put all the political rhetoric in the hands of party supporters.)

My point is that name-calling, false accusations and outright lies have been present since the beginning.  This is not new.

So does mud-slinging matter?

Well, it is protected speech under the Constitution, and rightfully so.  This kind of rhetoric is, on some level, unavoidable, since “men are not angels” as Madison said, (or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” as Paul said.)

However, that does not mean it is healthy for our society.  It would be better if candidates (and their supporters) could manage to be above all of that. But it is really hard to pull off effectively.  So we have to live with some level unhealthy rhetoric in our society.

Still, not all uncivil language is created equal.

For instance, consider the following campaign posters from Germany between 1929 and 1933.  At that time, Germany was a democracy (known as the Weimar Republic), but it was a fragile democracy.

These campaign posters reveal problems within the political culture of Germany at that time.  Take a good look at the images.



Communist Party, Liste 3:

“An End to this System”







Nazi Party:

“Smash the World Foe, International High Finance”







Social Democrat Party, Liste 1:

“Clear the Way for List 1”







The People’s Party, Liste 6:

“Against Civil War and Inflation!!”





What underlies these forms of political rhetoric?

They are signs that Germany at that time lacked a tradition of a loyal opposition.

To review:  healthy democracies assume that disagreement is legitimate, dissent is a healthy part of society, and political opponents should not be treated as if they are enemies to the nation.

Also this:  citizens recognize that their loyalty to the system of democracy is greater than their loyalty to a particular party or politician.

The lack of a loyal opposition in the Weimar Republic was significant because, as you may know, Hitler was able to take over the whole system in 1933.  That story is often told as if Hitler were some sort of “genius” who was able to dupe a bunch of gullible Germans.  But that analysis misses some critical points about the political culture of the Weimar Republic.

Hitler was a skilled orator and political manipulator, but he was no genius.  He was able to succeed because he took advantage of a number of serious political ailments in the Weimar Republic, ailments that many non-Nazi politicians and political parties also contributed to.

In other words, it would be helpful to consider what sort of ingredients went into the recipe of the Weimar Republic.  What made it possible for a large number of people to accept the Nazis and the communists as legitimate political options?  There were many, but let me list a few on the political discourse side of things.

The cover of Evans' book: Nazi Brown shirts attacking political opponents in the street.

The cover of Evans’ book: Nazi Brown shirts attacking political opponents in the street.

(Shameless plug for the importance of good historians:  If you want to read a fascinating, historically-solid account of how Germany ended up in the hands of the Nazis, I recommend that you read The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans.)

First of all, several political parties in the Weimar Republic intensified a sense that force and violence were valid measures to turn to, under the right circumstances.  Parties actually had their own private para-military units which would intimidate, beat up, shoot and sometimes kill political opponents and supporters.  For the Nazis, these were the Brown Shirts.  Other parties had their own uniformed gangs. Can you imagine Republicans and Democrats with their own uniformed military force, dressed in red and blue shirts, roaming the streets outside of polling places?

But here is my key point:  some forms of rhetoric, images and discussion encouraged many German citizens to accept violence in politics as legitimate.  Take another look at those campaign posters.  Several political parties, particularly the Nazis and the Communists on the extreme right and left, (who together captured 52% of the vote in 1932) did not treat other parties as if they were legitimate.  Even the less extreme parties, like the Social Democrats and People’s Party, were pulled into this kind of campaigning.  Politicians commonly accused opponents as “enemies of the Reich.”

And once you have labeled political opponents as enemies of the nation, it is easier to attach the “enemies” tag to all sort of people.  German Jews, of course, were the most notable victims of this process.

Of course, Hitler was not loyal to the system of democracy.  Neither were the communists.  Hitler exalted himself and his party above the system.  He equated his ideology with the nation of Germany.

There were many other factors that went into the rise of the Nazis.  But political rhetoric was a key part of the process.

Americans (and other stable democracies) can be thankful for a tradition of loyal opposition.  American politicians rarely refer to their opponents as “enemies” of the nation. They do not argue that violence is a legitimate tool to use against their opponents.  That’s the part we do well, without realizing it.

But we need to tend the garden.  What we say and how we say it matters.  There are ways that our rhetoric and discourse can start to slip in unhealthy directions.  Some politicians treat criticism as if it is not just incorrect but illegitimate.  Some people revert to rhetoric that characterizes political opponents as enemies of the nation.  And some people (fortunately they are usually non-politicians without much influence) will speak of violence as if it were an acceptable response to political opponents.

Our challenge?  Rhetoric is a very slippery and difficult substance to assess.  What kinds of rhetoric are constructive forms of dissent and what kinds of rhetoric pull us into unhealthy spaces?  The extremes are easier to identify than the fuzzy places in the middle.

So, let us think carefully, and humbly about what we are saying and how we are saying it.

The Critically Important Task of Losing Well

The Brits are a funny people.

Yes, they are humorous:  Monty Python is proof of that.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who make me laugh.

But I’m thinking of a different kind of funny.  I mean funny as in a bit strange.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who…well, no, let’s not go there.

Instead, let’s go here:  the British are funny because their government actually pays the leader of the party that loses the national election.  They give her or him a post in government with a salary equivalent to a cabinet member.  This person gets a car and a paid staff.  The loser.

It is both “funny ha-ha” and “funny strange.”

And yet… is crucially important for the successful operation of their democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser -- OK, Her Majesty's Official Opposition --in Great Britain right now

The Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser — OK, Her Majesty’s Official Opposition –in Great Britain right now

The official title for this person is “Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.”  That title encompasses an idea, “loyal opposition,” that is not used in the U.S. very much.  That is why it may seem funny to Americans.

But there is something very important here.  Back in 1992, when I found myself observing the political strife around me in Kenya, I heard the U.S. ambassador to Kenya give a speech in which he said that a problem Kenya was dealing with was that they did not have a tradition of a “loyal opposition.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since.  What is it?

The concept of the “loyal opposition” actually encompasses many things.  Among them lies the thinking that disagreement is legitimate, that dissent is a healthy part of democracy, and that political opponents should not be treated as enemies to society.  In 1937, Great Britain went so far as to officially create this position, to protect dissent in their parliamentary system.

Putting up with dissent is not easy, though.  In fact, because of our sinfulness as humans, I would argue our default mode is to try to ignore, silence, or even eliminate those who disagree with us. People in power don’t want to have to listen to those who criticize them.

This is one thing that makes building a democracy so difficult.  When Kenya got its independence in 1963, it had to build a nation from more than thirty different ethnic groups.  Fearing division and fragmentation, the leaders created one political party, KANU, that was supposed to encompass all people.  They effectively outlawed all other parties.  The result was that Kenya did not develop healthy practices of dissent and disagreement in politics.  Political opponents, journalists and protesters were jailed if they got too critical.  Some were killed in mysterious circumstances.  Those in power solidified their grip on the system.  After thirty years, the nation had a grand total of two presidents and the first, Jomo Kenyatta, only vacated his post because he died.  During the 1992 elections, a time when I was wondering if my family would have to be evacuated, political strife ran deeply because opponents were pushing for an alternative party.  The ruling party, KANU, saw these dissenters not only as a threat to their power, but as enemies to the nation.

Unlike those funny Brits, the United States does not officially have a position of loyal opposition built into its system  It does, however, have many of the principles embedded in other ways.  Checks and balances ensure that one branch of government will be able to disagree and even block another branch.  The federalist system of dividing power between the national government and state governments is another way of doing that.  The Bill of Rights guarantees rights of assembly, speech, religion and press, thereby implicitly promoting dissent.

But it was not easy to establish practices of loyal opposition.

The clearest example of this were the Sedition Acts.  In 1798 — after the Constitution had been in effect for more than a decade — the Federalist faction in Congress passed laws that leveled fines and imprisonment for anyone writing anything “false, scandalous, and malicious against the government.”  President John Adams, a Federalist, signed it into law.

A newspaper editor, Thomas Callendar then wrote “the reign of Mr. Adams has, hitherto, been one continued tempest of malignant passions.  As president, he has never opened his lips or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding.  The grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties, to calumniate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.”  He was fined $200 and jailed for nine months.

Another newspaper editor, Luther Baldwin, wrote that he wished that a cannonball that had been fired in honor of Adams’ birthday had landed instead in the seat of his pants.  Baldwin was fined $100.

Some politicians thought Adams’ opponents really were enemies to the nation and threats to democracy.  And they tried to silence them.

When you think about it, these are the kinds of shenanigans that we think about happening in many African or Latin American nations.  Or Russia.  Or Egypt. Or Turkey. Or Myanmar (if you think about Myanmar, that is).

Fortunately, the United States worked through it, for the most part.

John Adams made a grave error by signing the Sedition Acts into law, but he later did something that was crucial for American democracy:  he lost.  More importantly, he lost well.  In the 1800 presidential election, he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson, who was supported by a different faction, the Democratic-Republicans.

And what did John Adams do?  He left Washington DC and went back home to Massachusetts.

To those of us steeped in stable democracies, this is such a typical, “normal” thing for a politician to do, it doesn’t even seem notable.  (Our lack of surprise is one of those Good Things that we don’t realize about ourselves.)

Consider this, though:  it was the first significant peaceful transfer of power in modern times.  Adams did not try to take over the military.  He did not claim voter fraud.  He did not arrest his opponents.  He did not try to change the Constitution in ways to keep him in power.  Those are all things that politicians facing electoral defeat have done in many places in the modern world.

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

Adams knew how to lose.  It was, in my estimation, his greatest moment.

Thomas Jefferson should get credit, as well.

In a rather famous inaugural address in 1801, he said, “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”  He meant that the loyalty to the democratic system should be greater, than loyalty to one’s party or political allies.  Meanwhile, dissent was critically important.  “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable,” Jefferson declared, “that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

The Sedition Act had punished Jefferson’s allies.  But in 1801 he did not try to arrest his opponents as payback.  Jefferson did not try to pass a new set of Sedition Acts (which had expired) to silence the opposition.  He did not turn to the military to solidify his power.

Jefferson knew how to win in a manner that was healthy for the nation.  Believe it or not, I seriously think that this was his finest moment — maybe more so than that Declaration thing.

We need to keep the loyal opposition idea in mind.  In a rather crazy election year when passions and anger seem to be running more deeply than in the past, in an election when many are behaving badly, let us remember that there are principles that are higher than our particular candidate, our particular party and our particular political issues.

Those funny Brits are on to something, after all.












A Thing Americans (and Some Others) Do Well, Without Even Realizing It

I learn things from my students.  I don’t tell them, because then they’ll want to grade me on it.

One thing I learned from them is that there is a democratic characteristic that Americans do well.  I learned this through an anecdote I gave in class.  Yes, this post is an anecdote about an anecdote.

Spoiler alert for those of you who are really bad at history: it did actually end.

One day, several years ago, I brought up the 2000 presidential election in class.  I explained how it was essentially tied between George W. Bush and Al Gore after election night.  Florida, which was still too close to call, would decide the election, based on which way it went.  They had to count and recount the votes, and then get rulings on which votes were valid or not and why.  I explained that this went on for weeks.

The United States faced a major electoral conflict.

I then fast-forwarded my anecdote.  I explained to my students that about a year later I was talking to a guy who had been a missionary in Macedonia during this election.  He was talking to some Macedonians during the weeks when the results in Florida were disputed.  These Macedonians explained that the solution to this problem was really quite easy.  Look, they reasoned, it is clear that most Americans want Gore to be president because he got more popular votes than Bush.  (As you know, we have this funky electoral college system where every now and then the candidate who won the most popular votes did not win the election.  Even though Gore had more popular votes than Bush, the winner of Florida would gain the majority of electoral votes to win the presidency.)  Gore was Vice-President, which means he had President Clinton’s support and authority over the military. So here, according to these Macedonians, is how to solve the problem:

Gore should just take over the military, roll into Washington DC with the tanks, and declare that he is the rightful president.

At this point in my anecdote, a couple of students laughed.  They guffawed.

Now, my intention in telling this story was to get my students to think, “Hmm, this is interesting.  These Macedonians sure think about government and elections differently than us.”  (It’s a quixotic and perennially idealistic hope I have as an educator:  that students would think that something, anything, I bring up for discussion is interesting.)

I realized upon reflection after class, however, that these students did not think the Macedonian solution was interesting, so much as it was absurd.

The semester after that, I told the same anecdote.  And the semester after that and after that.  I always got similar reactions.  A few students would guffaw.  Those who commented on the anecdote viewed the Macedonians with some incredulity, as if they were absurd.

After several semesters of reflecting on this sort of thing, something else occurred to me:

My students’ reaction to my anecdote was a very good thing.

My students know, in their bones, that it would be absurd to think Al Gore should or would use the military to solve an electoral crisis like this.  And actually, this idea is absurd to Americans (and Brits and Germans and Belgians and Japanese and some others).  We are convinced that this is an inappropriate and even dangerous use of the military.  It is, in fact, a serious threat to democracy.  Our reaction of incredulity shows we do this well, without realizing it.

But this is what is interesting (and not absurd):  The idea that you should turn to the military to “solve” a political crisis is not absurd to many people around the world. 

In fact, if I could bring a bit of basic Christian theology into this, I would argue that the default tendency of human beings, because of our sinful nature, is to think we are justified in using the military to solve deep political problems.  Because, of course, all the evils of society lie with our political opponents.  They are the threat to what is good and right.  They deserve to be forced to come to the truth.  Grab the guns.

It is actually rather strange and uncommon to think these things should be worked out peacefully.  Authoritarian systems, however, foster the belief that the military can “solve” political crises.  This is why it is not surprising these Macedonians thought this way.  They did not have a history of democracy.  For the last half of the twentieth century, they lived under the communist government of Yugoslavia.  Before that, it was a Yugoslav dictatorship.  Before that, it was the Austrian Empire.  Before that, it was the Ottoman Empire.

Savior of the nation! Right....?

Savior of the nation! Right….?

Separating military force from politics is a very difficult task for democracies to achieve.  I could point to hundreds of historical examples.  (I am not exaggerating that number.) Take, for instance, the French Revolution, which attempted to overthrow monarchy and give power to the people in 1789.  A noble goal, but things got….messy.  (Can you say “Reign of Terror” boys and girls?  I thought you could.)  After several years of political disorder, Napoleon, at the head of the military, staged a coup and took dictatorial control of the nation, later crowning himself Emperor.  So much for democracy.  But most of the French loved him for it.

Dating back to the 19th century, Latin America has had a long tradition of turning to a figure called the caudillo.  The caudillo was a popular military leader who takes over by force when there is disorder or conflict in the nation.  He was often a charismatic figure, supported by masses of people who want somebody to bring order.  He did not bring democracy — in fact, he often used force to restrict liberties, but his supporters were fine with this.  This is a cultural tradition that democratically-minded people in Latin America would like to bury.

In any given year, one or two of the four dozen nations in Africa will experience a coup or an attempted coup.  In Asia, Thailand has had two coups in the last decade.  In July of this year, the military in Turkey attempted a coup and failed.  The Turkish prime minister, Erdogan, has used that event to stomp on a whole host of democratic freedoms and arrest political opponents.  Coups, regardless of whether or not they succeed, are not good for democracy.

In 2000, the U.S. solved its electoral crisis in the courts.  It took several weeks.  It was messy.  Some people were embarrassed or critical of the process.  And certainly, the electoral process had its problems.

At its core, however, the 2000 electoral conflict was actually an example of a great strength of democracy (and would have been equally so if the courts had ruled in Gore’s favor).  The United States did not turn to the military to solve its political dispute.  Given human nature and the examples of history, this is not something to brush off as trivial.

Many Democrats thought the result was wrong and unjust.  They sincerely believed that Gore should have been ruled to be President.  But Al Gore and the Democrats did not even entertain the idea that he should grab the guns to make right what they thought was wrong.  It wouldn’t have worked anyway, because Gore would not have had the support of the American people, the military, or even those in his own Democratic party.  The same would have been true if it were the other way around and the ruling had gone against George W. Bush and the Republicans.

Americans do this well.  As do other solid, stable democracies.  Without realizing it.

So, as long as my students continue to guffaw at my anecdote, I will feel very good about this part of the American political culture.


Democracy:  How to Do it.     

The cold hard truth:  we Americans love to believe there are easy solutions to complex problems.

Want to build a democracy in southeast Asia?  If we were to believe Sargent Muldoon in The Green Berets, simply defeat the bad guys and write a Constitution.  There it is!  Happy Ending!

These guys know everything! Why don't we have more shows like this?

These guys know everything! Why don’t we have more shows like this?

Right.  In moments like these, it can be helpful to get some perspective from Monty Python.  In this case it is an old sketch, “How to Do It,” satirizing a popular children’s TV show in Britain, in which they explain how to do all sorts of amazing things.  It takes the Pythons all of thirty-four seconds to describe how to play the flute and rid the world of all known diseases.  There it is!  Happy Ending!  (Yeah, click on the link above.  It’s worth watching and it is short).

Come to think of it, want to fix America?  Our political candidates will explain how to do it in one TV ad, which is about as long as the Pythons took to rid the world of all known diseases.

Gosh, the Pythons didn’t have to satirize a children’s show — they just as easily could have done the same thing with our politicians.

But before we get too self-righteous here (a great temptation when writing blogs or discussing politics or, heavens, doing both) keep in mind that most politicians know these problems are very complicated.  They grossly oversimplify complex issues because they want our vote and we respond positively to those who give us simple solutions to complex problems.

Real life, of course, is complicated.  Very complicated.

Take, for instance, the establishment of democracy.  As I mentioned in my last post, the U.S. and the new Latin American nations had a number of important factors in common in the early 19th century.  But it didn’t go well in Latin America.  Between 1820 and 1990, twenty-two nations of Latin America wrote, implemented and scrapped between 180 and 190 constitutions (depending on how one counts them).  Not sure what Sargent Muldoon would say about that.

Why do some nations develop democracies and others fall short?

It is complicated.  Did I mention that?

Here are just a few things that the American colonies had going for them upon independence that Latin American colonies did not have:

  • widespread literacy among ordinary people
  • practices of religious freedom that had been established for decades before independence (Christians in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania getting a jump on this before Enlightenment thinkers caught on).
  • not just capitalism, but a particular kind of capitalism in which land (critical for an agricultural economy) was available to ordinary people (if they were white).  A while back I described how I have personally benefited from ancestors who took advantage of this situation, which would not have been possible in Latin America, where almost all the land was controlled by elites.
  • a couple of centuries of political developments, conflicts (and a civil war) in England in establishing practices that divided power between the legislature and the executive.  These developments produced…..
  • a tradition of representative government (on local levels) that goes back 150 years before independence.  Virginia got the ball rolling with the House of Burgesses in 1619 and every colony established a legislature shortly after they were founded.

And here is a rather odd and disconcerting factor:

  • Racism in America helped extend democracy to (some) ordinary people, while racism in Latin America worked against extending democracy to ordinary people.  How does that work?  In essence the whites in control of new Latin American nations simply did not want to grant “consent” in government to ordinary people, because the majority of ordinary people in most places were Indian, black or mixed-race (mestizo).  For instance, in an 1881 election in Brazil, 142,000 people were able to vote, out of a population of 15 million.  That’s 1% of the population, folks.  American founders were more willing to grant “consent” to ordinary people because a majority of Americans were white.  The American founders did not, for the most part, extend government “of the people, by the people and for the people” to the people who were black or Indian.  But the people of color were a minority, so they did not scare the American elites like the vast majorities scared the elites in Latin America.  (A reminder that it took the United States a long time after 1776 to grant basic democratic rights and opportunities to people of color).

Not a pleasant historical point, but there it is.

And finally, a factor that does not have to be a factor:

  • it has been common among many Americans to declare that one has to fight militarily to gain freedom and democracy.  But Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several other nations have shown that it is possible to achieve democracy without employing soldiers to fight for it.  So there is one factor that is often thought to be a necessary condition that is not necessarily necessary.

And I haven’t mentioned all the factors.  In fact, you might know of other issues or factors that should be added in the mix.

Democracies are very, very difficult to develop.

So, what can we take away from this? Many things, but here are a few thoughts I have:

First, democracies take a long time to develop.  Americans had at least a two-century jump on new Latin American nations in many of these areas.   Americans are not superior to African nations because they are trying to achieve in fifty years what took America several centuries to achieve.

Second, we should resist supporting policies based on oversimplifications.  The United States has sometimes underestimated these complexities.  The Vietnam War showed that it was very difficult to “win the hearts and minds” of the people.  In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq and defeated Saddam Hussein and his military in about three months (which was what the U.S. military had calculated).  However, our government did not have an effective, or even well-developed plan for how to help Iraq move to democracy after Hussein was gone.  We sort of assumed the Iraqis would just embrace freedom.  A long, painful and protracted civil war followed that ensnared us since, well, we helped create the disorder that produced it.  So, think carefully about simple promises that we can bring freedom to other places in the world.

Third, if you think about the factors above that helped establish democracy, you will see that many are built on ordinary people doing what is good and right in caring about other people, even if they are quite different from themselves.  Teachers teaching.  People of faith, and business people and politicians working to ensure that all people have economic opportunities.  Ordinary people granting respect and freedom to people of different religions.

In fact, a number of months ago I mentioned a ground-breaking study by Bob Woodberry that shows that the work of missionaries in history has actually helped build democracies around the world. So, we should support our missionaries, our non-profits and those who are serving others particularly the “widows and the orphans,” as the Bible reminds us regularly.  We should do it anyway, but we can add the development of democracy to our list of motivating factors.


A post for bright Americans   

As far as I can tell, the people who read my blog are all  A) Americans and  B) bright people.  The two do not always go together, but I have a great deal of faith in my readers.  I say that, mostly because you’ll feel better about reading this post if I compliment you this way.  (OK, OK, I do think you are bright, too.)

Therefore, since you have these qualities, I have a little thought exercise for you.

Imagine this were the year 1800.  You are going to advise democratically-minded leaders in Latin America who want to create new nations out of the colonies there.  You know the story about the United States.  So what would you tell them they need to establish in order to build a solid democracy?

Think a moment……

This icon is inserted here to help you pause and think.

This icon is inserted here to help you pause and think.

(Picture a spinning wheel icon or an hourglass icon here.  Imagine “Jeopardy” music in the background….)

Think some more……

Got it?

OK, let us see how you did, compared to what those leaders in Latin America actually did without your good advice.

By 1825, leaders in most of these new nations in Latin America (there were variations, of course) had achieved all of the following (which were all what the U.S. had achieved):

  • – they had declared, fought for, and achieved independence from a European “mother” country
  • – they had studied Enlightenment ideas of rights, natural law, liberty, and republican forms of government
  • – they had written Constitutions
  • – they had established republican forms of government
  • – they eliminated titles that had granted upper class members aristocratic status
  • – the right to vote was granted to landowners
  • – economies had shifted from mercantilist dependency on the “mother” country to market-based capitalism

Well, how did you do?  How many of these did you get?

Now think about those Latin American leaders.  They did pretty well, didn’t they?

Yes, but… forward to about 1980.  How were these Latin American nations doing?

Not well.

One-hundred and fifty years after embarking on the project of democracy, most Latin American countries were characterized by the following:

  • – military rule, dictatorships, or rule by small oligarchies
  • – severe restrictions on the freedom of press, assembly, speech, and religion
  • – human rights abuses that included, in many places, the arrest and torture of political opponents
  • – tremendous inequality, whereby elites dominated and ruled society
  • – economies that had been about the size of the US in 1800 (Argentina and Mexico, for instance), in 1980 were less that 1/3 the size of the US (GDP per capita)

(A brief caveat:  many Latin American nations have made great strides toward democracy in the last two decades, which is why I made 1980 the cut-off date.  And a few were pretty solid before 1980.  Two thumbs up for Costa Rica!)

The United States ended up far more democratic than most Latin American nations.  Now, since you are a bright and thoughtful American (I added “thoughtful” because you have read this far in the post) you will not react to this comparison of Latin America with the USA with a declaration along the lines of “Yeah, we are the USA!  We are totally awesome!  Whatever we do turns to gold!”  For, of course, you do not want to imply that Americans are “naturally” better at democracy, or that Americans are God’s favorite children, or that Americans are just plain entitled.  You do not want to assume the attitude of Ryan Lochte talking to police in Rio after trashing a gas station bathroom.  No.

Instead, because you are thoughtful and bright, you are saying this to yourself: “Hmm, this is interesting.  Latin American countries had so many elements of democracy, including (perhaps) a few I had not thought of.  Why didn’t they turn out democratic?”

Yes, that is the question you are asking yourself.  Good job.

And here is the answer to the question of why democracies did not develop in Latin America:  I don’t really know, completely.  (But I have ideas.)

You don’t really know, completely, either. (You probably have ideas, too,)

But it is a good question for you to ask, because it will lead to deeper thinking and understanding about how democracies are built and how the world works.  It is something I have been wondering about since some dramatic experiences in Kenya.

First observation:  democracies are complicated and difficult to establish.

The characteristics listed above do not, alone, insure a democracy will develop in a nation.  But what else do they need?

Homework:  think about that one before my next post.



Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

You know that movie? The one where there are good guys and there are bad guys.   And the bad guys are doing terrible things to society and the good guys are fighting them. And it looks like the good guys will lose, but then in the end they eliminate the bad guys.

Yeah, it’s Star Wars. No, check that. The Avengers. Or maybe I mean Die Hard. Uh, is it Braveheart? Or maybe that classic western, Shane. No, it is every James Bond movie ever made. Wait, of course. It is….The Little Mermaid.

Yeah, OK.  The Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story is a very common formula. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite stories. For that matter, it’s a favorite story in a lot of other places in our culture.

Actually, the movie I have in mind is The Green Berets, with John Wayne (who did a few films, it seems, with this formula).

The film is about the Vietnam War. It came out in 1968, right in the middle of the war. There is a moment early in the movie when a group of reporters receives a history lesson. It’s obvious there is some controversy about the war and the public has been invited to a press conference to hear the soldiers’ side of the story. A reporter named Beckworth asks the Green Berets about the South Vietnamese government, pointing out they do not have free elections or a Constitution, even though a committee was formed to write one.

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there nothing he cannot do?

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there anything he cannot do?

The officer with the Green Beret-ish name of Sargent Muldoon then gives everyone a little history lesson to explain why the U.S. military is supporting South Vietnam.  (The clip in the link above is of the whole press conference in the film, about four minutes long.  The history lesson begins around minute 2:30, if you want to see that part):

“The school I went to Mr. Beckworth, taught us that the thirteen colonies, with proper and educated leadership, all with the same goal in mind, after the Revolutionary War, took from 1776 to 1787, eleven years of peaceful effort, before they came up with a paper that all thirteen colonies would sign, our present Constitution.”

With the history lesson out of the way, the movie then heads off to Vietnam where John Wayne and the good guys fight bravely for the free world. This includes a cute boy whom the film writers decided to give the very un-Vietnamese-ish name of “Hamchunk.”  (OK, that last comment has nothing to do with the point of this post.  I just have a little mental spasm every time I think about a movie giving the name “Hamchunk” to an Asian boy).

It’s typical John Wayne fare and fun if you like that sort of thing. The theme song is catchy.

As a historian, though, I can’t help myself. Sargent Muldoon has some factual problems. For instance, the United States actually had a constitution before The Constitution — it was called the Articles of Confederation. But truth be told, that doesn’t bother me too much. Hollywood regularly messes up its historical facts and this is the type of goof that most people wouldn’t remember anyway.

The bigger problem I have is this: it’s the Good Guy vs. Bad Guy narrative.

Now, Good Guy vs. Bad Guy stories are often fun and exciting. A lot of interesting plots and stories have been told with this simple formula. And on a certain level, it reflects something that we all should know (and Christians should know): that ultimately, some day, good will triumph over evil in this world.

But it stinks as analysis for how the world is today. And it stinks as a formula for how good will ultimately triumph over evil.  And it stinks as analysis of human nature.

(Sorry to be a spoil sport here, for all of you John Wayne fans. Be thankful you are not my kids, who had to endure this sort of thing from me when we watched movies).

The problem is this: I instinctively identify with the Good Guys in these films. After all, I like to think of myself as The Good Guy. The one who is right, and knowledgeable and can handle evil in the world through my own wits, courage and effort.

And that kind of thinking tends to blind me to my own limitations, my failures, and the sin within me. In fact, I like that blindness.  Who wants to see their own limitations, failures and sins?

But (spoiler alert) I am not going to overcome the sins of the world by my own effort, even if I join up with a bunch of other Good Guys. Apart from saving the world, it is a problem in dull, ordinary, daily life when I lose sight of my deep need for God’s grace and wisdom and guidance.

OK, we Christians know this. We know these movies are just entertainment.

Do we?

This brief observation about advertising is brought to you by Apple's logo. Have you ever seen it before?

The brief observation in the text to left about advertising is brought to you by Apple’s logo. Have you ever seen it before?

Here is something to consider: isn’t it true that if we hear a story over and over and over again, (without reflection or an alternative story to challenge the dominant story) it is likely to seep into out being, without us realizing it. Shoot, it doesn’t even have to be a story. That’s why advertisers work so hard just to get us to recognize their brand. It works.

Here is an alternative story to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story: though all people are good in the sense that they are created by God, all people are also stained by sin and limited in their understanding. The Good News is that God offers us forgiveness and grace and wisdom. But we cannot generate it without God.

But back to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story that is so common. The Green Berets is interesting because it consciously tried to make the connection between entertainment and real life.  It did not simply situate itself as entertainment. Produced at the height of the controversies over the Vietnam War, it was clearly a statement about how to solve the problem of the war. Trust in our own goodness and toughness and righteousness, and we will defeat the evil of communism.

That story, in so many other forms, seeps deep into the soul of our culture. So I think we ought to think more deeply about the way that human nature is portrayed in the everyday stuff around us.

As it turned out, the Vietnam War was a lot more complicated than The Green Berets made it out to be.   Whatever righteousness and wit and courage we Americans had was not enough to shape that conflict the way we wanted it to be shaped. In real life, the Good Guy story did not come true.

The Good Guy/Bad Guy story is not, by any means, just a conservative characteristic. There are liberal versions. For radicals in the 60s, the solution was to work for a revolution to overthrow the bad guys controlling the system. Many leftists in the 60s were sure that revolting against the Establishment would produce a good society. Some thought the North Vietnamese were the Good Guys. That didn’t work, either.

For liberal idealists, the solution was just to believe in the goodness of all human beings, a stance captured in John Lennon’s hit, “Imagine.” The Beatles made some nice music but let me just say that the Christian rocker Larry Norman, in his song “Readers Digest,” gave what I thought was the most succinct critique of this view of human nature: “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.”

Here, then, is a parting thought that I plan to expand upon later: democracy (and other institutions, like the church, the family, business, education, movies, rock songs etc.) work best when they are built on systems that, to paraphrase James Madison, recognize that humans are not angels.

That moment when the Marines land in a helicopter to evacuate you….

One day about twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were eating lunch with our pre-school daughters. We were missionaries, teaching at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.   As was so often true in this particularly glorious part of God’s creation, it was a beautiful, sunny day, with temperatures in the low 70s. RVA was on a break, so there weren’t many of students around.

Suddenly, we heard a car honking, incessantly: “Beep, Beeep, Beeeep, BEEP!   BEEEEEEP!”   A car came tearing up our driveway. I ran outside and a fellow missionary jumped out of the car and said, “A group of armed men came out of the forest up above the upper road. They attacked Kiambogo Primary School” (a Kenyan school about a mile away) “and shot a number of students. We’re gathering down at the chapel to decide what to do.”

He then jumped back in the car and took off.

Well, now.

Some context. Kenya had been experiencing political unrest. And political unrest in Kenya was serious business.

Also, Kenya’s infrastructure was not highly developed, which meant that there were not many police outside of urban areas. We had a police station in the area that housed two policemen. They did not have a vehicle, so if we needed them in an emergency, we had to drive down to get them. In other words, we had to take care of a lot of security ourselves.

But roaming mobs of men with guns?

Suffice it to say, to this point in my life I had not experienced anything that was much like this situation. It was…..a tad unsettling, shall we say.

I scurried off to the chapel, where other teachers and staff were gathering. There was a lot of nervous discussion, of course. We were informed that many of the Kenyans who had jobs at RVA had run home to see if their children were safe.

After a short time, one missionary arrived who asked: “How do we know if these reports are true?”


That was a good question. We stopped and considered that one.

This man explained that he had lived in Uganda during a particularly unstable period and he knew rumors could spread and really put people on edge. Once, in his car with his family, he had been stopped at a roadblock and a soldier interrogated him with a loaded machine gun pointed at his face.  He was allowed to move on, and things calmed down.

About fifteen minutes or so after this, we found out that his suspicions were correct. The stories were false. No soldiers had come out of the forest. The Kiambogo primary school was fine. In fact, we read in the national newspaper the next day that this same rumor had been spread in dozens of places throughout the central region of Kenya, (all with the feature that a primary school near that area had been attacked) causing quite a bit of panic. The analysis was that the rumors were politically-motivated.

But I’d like us to consider two questions here.

Question #1: Was it actually plausible that something like this could happen?

Answer #1: Yes.

Here are some things I did experience in Kenya: at one point, crowds of Kikuyu people were stopping cars on the upper road, pulling out individuals from the rival Luo group and beating them up. One man was killed. The main highway into Nairobi had been effectively shut down. We felt isolated.

During teachers’ meetings before the school term began, one of the things we did was go over emergency procedures. We were told how, in a national emergency, we would gather faculty, staff and students together in a dormitory, while we waited for U.S. marine helicopters to arrive to evacuate us out of the country.

Now, this is what a truly terrible political situation looks like.

Now, this is what a truly terrible political situation looks like.

It had happened elsewhere. In the year before the Kenyan election, we had talked with missionaries who had to be evacuated from Liberia and (what was then) Zaire. Those two nations had fallen into civil war, where the social and political order had pretty much collapsed. Kenya bordered Somalia and Sudan, which were experiencing devastating civil wars.  Imagine the “law” of the land consisting of young men and teenage boys driving around in pickup trucks with machine guns. That happens.

Fortunately, it never came to this in Kenya. In fact, most years, Kenya has been secure and stable. And some nations in Africa that we don’t hear about, like Botswana and Senegal, have been extremely stable democracies for decades.  In Kenya, there have been a few moments, during election season, when stability was a real concern. This happened to be one of those moments.

So, during those months in Kenya, I struggled with this anxiety: Could the entire social and political order in this place I am living collapse?

It struck me that I had never felt that way in the United States. And I haven’t felt it since. Of course, there have been other kinds of anxieties about security in American society. But nothing like this.

After that, I began to ask myself a question that I have occasionally revisited in the years since then.

So here is Question #2: Why are some nations occasionally in danger of political and social collapse? Why are other nations more stable? What holds the social and political order of a nation together? (OK, that is more than one question, but you get the idea).

Answer #2: I don’t know, exactly.

However, I think that some things, like paying careful attention to history, particularly how cultures and institutions develop, can help us better understand these issues. I’m going to post a few blogs exploring these issues.

And I think it may be helpful for us in the United States to remember during this crazy election year, in which all sorts of fears, anxieties and unsettling things have arisen, that the social and political order is not going to collapse, no matter who gets elected. It is true we have some unhealthy components to our system. We need to take those seriously.  But we actually still have a solid foundation to our political order.

In other words, in the United States we don’t fear that the marines will have to evacuate us to some other place, while things fall apart around us. I know what that fear is like.