Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

July 16, 2013

Absolutists and Democracy in Egypt and America

By David K. Shipler

            It is time to draw a new political spectrum, one that doesn’t go from liberal to conservative. A useful alternative is to put Absolutists at one end and Opportunists at the other. In both Egypt and the United States, we are seeing struggles between these extremes, while people in the middle—principled yet open to conciliation—find themselves on eroding ground.
It is distasteful to compare Egypt with the United States. We Americans are accustomed to watching with patronizing dismay as emerging democracies falter, pick themselves up, stumble forward, or slide backward into some variation of the authoritarian system they have just thrown off. We think we have something to teach them, and we do. But they have something to teach us, too, often in the form of a cautionary tale.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated elections, made the classic error of newly minted leaderships: It thought that winning the vote meant that they could ignore those who voted against them and could govern without compromise, without regard to minority rights or interests. The Brotherhood adopted a constitution rigged against the secular, displayed tolerance for intolerance toward the Coptic Christian minority, marginalized the political opposition, and indulged in xenophobic prosecutions of foreign non-profits that were trying to help Egyptians construct a pluralistic democracy—yes, trying to promote democratic institutions!
 In short, the Absolutists held sway—for a time. Absolutists are like marbles thrown into the gears of democracy. They halt and damage the mechanisms of political pluralism. They rob from governing all that is supple and fluid. The state becomes brittle. It’s worth remembering that what is brittle tends to break.
The United States has its Absolutists, of course. Mostly they’ve been at the edges of politics, relegated to insignificance at both ends of the traditional spectrum. But now, from the right, they come to Congress from districts drawn to make sure that no Republican primary will nominate anyone suspected of moderation. And once in Washington, they have shown as much iron determination, as much unyielding devotion to principle, as the Muslim Brothers have in Cairo.
Such invidious comparisons are unattractive, unfair, and overdrawn—I know. But only because the United States has what Egypt does not: a tempered democracy, a seasoned political culture and a superstructure of institutions to balance and check and impose measured judgments. In among these hard pillars of democratic tradition flow the soft values of negotiation, compromise, and regard for the common good—or so it has been until recent years.
Absolutists have been dominating Congress. As the majority in the House, and as the minority in the Senate, Absolutist Republicans have slowed and halted the workings of government.
They have exercised their prerogatives in the Senate, through the filibuster, to obstruct a wide swath of President Obama’s perfectly qualified nominees to key agencies. And why? Because these nominees are corrupt? Incompetent? No. Because the agencies they lead would follow policies that don’t suit the extreme right. So obstreperous have Absolutist Republicans become that Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has been driven toward the heretical option of limiting filibusters. 
In the House, Absolutist Republicans pass measures they know cannot be enacted—repealing Obamacare, separating food stamps from farm assistance—and yet refuse to consider compromises worked out carefully across the aisle: immigration reform, for example, as passed by the Senate. Nothing is negotiable to the Absolutists,  despite pleas some of their Republican brothers and sisters that the party will fail to win Hispanic voters without conciliatory change on immigration, as bill passed by the Senate.
A New York Times editorial the other day summed it up nicely: “These actions show how far the House has retreated from the national mainstream into a cave of indifference and ignorance.” Substitute “the Muslim Brotherhood” for “the House” and you’d have had a good analysis of Egypt.
The Republicans look as if they are still fighting the last election, still opposing everything that Obama proposes because Obama proposes it. Let’s hope the President doesn’t declare that the sun will rise tomorrow.
 Of course both Absolutists and Opportunists come in many forms. Absolutists may be political, religious, moral, or simply selfish. Opportunists may be gutless, amoral, or simply selfish. There are Absolutists and Opportunists on both the left and the right of the traditional political spectrum.
And then there are the negotiators, the conciliators, the people who respect others’ views, who listen well, and who try to find compromises that will work for most of the country most of the time. Most Democrats at the moment tend to fit this profile, because their constituencies are diverse. Obama, too, has tried to hold this center space between the Absolutists and the Opportunists—sometimes to the great disappointment and anger of his supporters who want more principle and more backbone.
It’s a delicate dance. It would be good to believe that most voters in both the United States and Egypt prefer that middle part of the spectrum where constructive governing can be accomplished. That cannot be done in the streets.