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Sunday
Apr062008

Remember when America wasn't so democratic?

Americans spend little time remembering our history, preferring to focus on current and future accomplishments.

That attitude gives us a bit of attention-deficit disorder when it comes to judging other countries' political evolution. We simply cannot understand why they shouldn't be able to quickly put together a democracy like our own.

The harsh truth is most developing countries that embrace markets and globalization do so as single-party states.

Sure, many feature a marginal opposition party, just like the Harlem Globetrotters always play - and beat - the Washington Generals, but they're still single-party states. Mexico was like this for decades, as was South Korea and Japan.

Once economic development matured enough, a real balance took hold, and power started shifting back and forth between parties. Malaysia heads for the same tipping point today.

Americans, especially experts and politicians, typically view these regimes with a certain disdain, wondering how a public can put up with a manipulative political system where elites decide who runs for high office and only a tiny fraction of the public has any real influence. We demand more competition, more suffrage and freer elections - now!

But take a trip back with me to the beginnings of our own country, and let me try to convince you that America needs to display more patience with such developments because what we often demand of others we certainly had a hard time achieving quickly for ourselves.

Remember this: Our country was born of revolution, including a nasty guerrilla-style war waged by a rag-tag collection of militias against the most powerful military in the world at that time.

We fought dirty, even launching a surprise attack during a religious holiday. We persecuted fellow citizens who sided with the occupational authority.

The enemy branded our military leader a terrorist. In fact, its parliament was the first in history to use such terminology to describe our violent attacks against its commerce.

True to our radical extremism, we "elected" this rebel military leader our first president in 1789. I say "elected" because, for all practical purposes, he ran unopposed.

Less than 2 percent of our country's population was actually able to cast votes, as roughly half of the states chose electors in their legislatures - rich land-owning patricians selecting one of their own. This rebel leader ran unopposed again for re-election three years later in 1792.

When the general finally stepped down in 1797, he was replaced by another revolutionary leader - an unlovable enforcer whom the revolutionary elite trusted with a number of unsavory jobs over the years.

Catch his life story on HBO right now. Like the general, this radical lawyer wasn't associated with an organized party.

His revolutionary credentials were beyond reproach.

Our third president, one of the world's most notorious radical ideologues, ushered in a period of single-party rule in 1800.

During that election, only six of 16 states actually allowed the "people" - just white men who met certain qualifications - to vote directly for the president. Certain racial groups were denied the right to vote, as were women.

This one-party rule, subsequently dubbed the "era of good feelings," extended almost a quarter century, getting so stale at one point that an incumbent president ran unopposed.

Finally, a whopping 48 years after we issued our famous Declaration of Independence declaring all men equal, we conducted a presidential election in which three-quarters of the states let their citizens vote directly for candidates.

Four years later, in 1828, America finally saw an "outsider," meaning someone not from the first revolutionary generation or its immediate progeny, actually win the White House. Naturally, he was another war hero, who, over his eight years in office, brutalized his political opponents so much that they mockingly dubbed him "King Andrew."

The "king" then displayed the Putinesque temerity to hand-pick his successor, earning him the equivalent of a "third term."

This was the first half-century of American political history.

It took us 89 years to free the slaves and 189 years to guarantee African-Americans the right to vote.

Women waited 144 years before earning suffrage.

I know that's all in the past, but that's my point: It took America quite some time to develop this democracy we cherish.

Remember that when you decry "sham" elections abroad or declare single-party states "dictatorships." Because if mature, multiparty democracy was so darn easy, everybody would have one.

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