Standing in line for 80 minutes at a Philadelphia polling place Tuesday (the first time in 24 years I'd seen such a line), I got a lesson in renewed American civic engagement.
Students chatted about casting their first vote. Volunteers answered queries about registration, offered texts of ballot questions, and provided folding chairs for the weary. I'd already gotten nine calls from live Obama volunteers during the weekend urging me to vote, and one robo-call attacking Barack Obama and promoting John McCain. Three out-of-state friends phoned to tell me they'd taken time off to volunteer in my swing state.
The soaring level of grassroots involvement this year – and new voter registration – is vital for democracy here and beyond our borders.
Counter to cynicism
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This U.S. ballot may well help counter growing cynicism about elections in the developing world.
It's easy to get dubious about democracy in rich countries, where corruption in politics and on Wall Street seems out of control. Americans might have been tempted to turn their backs on politicians as they watched the greedy get bailed out in the global economic crisis. Voters could have chosen to stay home, especially those with bitter memories of the disputed 2000 election.
And yet the opposite happened. Although opinion surveys show voters are pessimistic about whether a new president can turn things around, they flooded the polls. This surge reflects a desire to repudiate the incumbent. (President Bush's 25 percent approval rating is the lowest of any modern president before an election.) Yet it also shows that many Americans still hope a vote can bring change.
The dynamism of this U.S. election will have important ripple effects elsewhere. Voters in much of the developing world have become jaded about elections, especially those heavily promoted by the United States. Indeed, the White House's democracy agenda has sadly backfired, often giving democracy a bad name.
Iraq's much-touted 2005 poll of the purple-ink-stained thumbs ushered in a period of harsh sectarian politics and civil war. Iraqis largely voted for religious parties; majority Shiite Muslims saw the ballot as a way to take power over Sunnis. Having no experience with the give-and-take of liberal democracy, most Iraqis still see politics as a zero-sum game, in which the winner takes all and the loser gets nothing.
Woes on democratic front
Hopes for democracy also have dimmed in the former Soviet republics that experienced so-called “Color Revolutions” – peaceful uprisings that promised a rejection of their authoritarian past. Four years ago, Viktor Yushchenko led Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which took back a stolen election from a candidate Moscow supported. But Yushchenko's unwillingness to share power has paralyzed his country.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the leader of Georgia's Rose Revolution, has shown a similar authoritarian streak, slapping down democratic opposition and muzzling media. He invaded South Ossetia, bringing on a Russian incursion, without consulting his parliament (or the United States).
And in Russia itself, Western hopes for a recognizable form of democracy proved premature. The Clinton administration pressed Moscow to develop a capitalist, democratic system in the 1990s.
But the country's economic collapse soured ordinary Russians on this experiment. They seem to prefer Vladimir V. Putin, who curbed democratic freedoms and restored semi-authoritarian rule while improving Russians' economic lot with oil profits.
Indeed, U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East and the former Soviet empire seem to have reached an impasse.
Leading by example
What's so hopeful about this U.S. presidential election is that it leads by example rather than by fiat. America's strongest suit in the past has been the example we provided to would-be democrats in other countries. Rather than impose democracy, the United States could help those who wanted to model their institutions on ours.
That's why it is so important that U.S. democracy is worthy of emulation. Those who used divisive campaign tactics – calling themselves “the real America” and others traitors – undermine not only our democracy, but also the model we offer others.
Let's hope this election shows up the cynicism of such tactics at home and convinces democrats abroad that they still have a future. The best way for Americans to demonstrate that democracy needn't be a zero-sum game is to practice tolerance here.