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.