Like most Americans, I have followed the protests in Egypt, which have been fueled by the economic crisis, high unemployment, pent-up anger at decades of government repression, and the peaceful revolution in Tunisia just weeks before. I celebrated when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned.
But even the most ardent organizers of the demonstrations are quick to say they understand that this is just the first step. The absence of Mubarak doesn’t mean the certain rise of democracy. Even if the military rulers structure a peaceful path to civilian-led government, it doesn’t ensure prosperity. Egyptians need only look to the U.S. to see many flavors of democracy and examples of its virtues and pitfalls.
As many African-Americans, victims of McCarthyism and Latinos currently living in Arizona could attest, protections offered by a democratic constitution are always vulnerable and require defending.
Our states’ experiments in democratic design sometimes have unintended results. For example, exactly 100 years ago, Californians amended the state constitution to create the initiative process, allowing for more direct citizen lawmaking. In 1978, Californians used that process to pass Proposition 13, which created a strict limit on property taxes, and people cheered. Nearly 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls, and almost 65 percent of those who went voted for Proposition 13.
Today, while Proposition 13 remains popular, its consequences are not. It has kept property taxes down as intended, but in the process has devastated state services. For example, California schools, once considered among the nation’s best, now have student achievement scores that are the third or fourth lowest in the nation. Add in a bad recession and high costs from other popular legislation, such as the anti-crime “three strikes law” of the 1990s, and California’s budget is in crisis today.
The nation is experiencing another object lesson in democratic principles. The November election demonstrated the tremendous power of money and a biased media that aggressively promotes an agenda. The anti-government taxpayer revolt in part results from that deliberate campaign. With threats of polemics of this kind, tea party leaders just last week succeeded in brow-beating thoughtful appropriators in the U.S. House of Representatives into extreme cuts in federal spending. No doubt those crafting talking points for this budget hack job assume that the public won’t understand the impacts of such cuts in time to weigh in.
But did the public really ask in November to have the Women, Infants and Children program slashed by $747 million? Did most people intend cuts to education, unemployment benefits, Medicare, Social Security? It’s one thing to talk in generalities about government being too big, but another to fight for tax cuts for large corporations, then deny essential services to needy people.
The anti-government movement has also fueled an unthinking hostility to public sector workers. Like the hate-mongering that has resulted in attacks on Latino children, such careless speech does not represent the best of our democracy.
I salute the Egyptian people for their patience, bravery and inventiveness. And I congratulate the Egyptian military for their restraint. It will be a challenge to realize the hopes of millions who have endured oppression in an undemocratic regime by creating a balanced, fair system of governance that serves not only the powerful but the needy. At times in U.S. history, our nation has been one of the best examples of democratic empowerment. Right at the moment, I’m not so sure.