Stephen Gottlieb: Intransigence – The Auto-Immune Disease Of Democracy

Jul 9, 2013

Obviously I’ve been following the news from Egypt like everyone else. You don’t need commentators to tell you that ousting a democratically elected government is undemocratic and unacceptable. But I want to talk about Morsi’s mistakes because they illustrate a major misunderstanding of democracy.

Morsi’s failure was not to realize that he had to govern for the entire public – including non-Muslims and secular Muslims – so that they are protected even in a Muslim country. He failed to grasp the necessity of compromise and inclusiveness in a democratic system, and the likelihood that intransigence will destroy everything. He tried to squelch other institutions that might threaten his power, including the courts and the media. And he tried to rig the system to protect his own power.

Those are common mistakes. We’ve seen democratic elections from Iraq to Venezuela and Zimbabwe result in leaders who tried to dismantle opposition to institutionalize their own power.  And then they rule like they are entitled to all the spoils of victory, as if they can run roughshod over their opponents.

When government refuses to govern for the benefit of everyone, losing becomes dangerous, basic civil liberties are threatened, great financial losses loom, politics easily become violent and dictatorship likely replaces it.

Even here, Southern and Tea Party representatives don’t want to govern for the benefit of the entire country. Natural disasters in the wrong part of the country – fuggeddaboudit. The 47% they identified as Obama supporters – no rights the Tea Party need respect. People lured in by subprime mortgages – should have known better. People out of work – their own fault. Federal judges that don’t agree with their politics – no way.

And to assure that the voters can’t get back at them, they have gotten the U.S. Supreme Court to permit the old intransigent South to close the doors of democracy to African-Americans and anyone else they despise. The Court actually took the position that the states of the old Confederacy were entitled to the same right as other states to discriminate at the ballot box. Understand, the Court didn’t claim that any state has a right to discriminate. That’s forbidden by the Constitution in very clear language. But Roberts and company did not want to deprive the old Confederacy of the opportunity to evade that prohibition just like anyone else.

The Tea Party’s failure to realize that they have to share the country with people who voted for Obama, and with people who accept that he is the President of the United States, condemns the Tea Party in the eyes of most of this country. Many will reap the whirlwind of their unwillingness to compromise.

We in America have seen intransigence before. Before the Civil War, the North kept trying to compromise, giving the Southern states what they wanted, but the South couldn’t be satisfied. The result was a civil war that left the South a depressed area for a century.

I pray for Egypt, but I understand how difficult it is for leaders to be statesmen.

Intransigence is the auto-immune disease of democracy. It tears at the soul of a democratic people. The belief that election manipulation and dismantling of checks on power are justified in pursuit of one’s own ends, destroys healthy institutions of self-government with crime, corruption and autocracy.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

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