Rude awakening?

The Egyptian army cracks down on the Muslim Brotherhood; the majority of the population approves.  Greece arrests members of the fascist Golden Dawn party, including members of parliament; their popularity crumbles.  Not much to go on, if you’re looking for a trend, but it’s enough to ask the question, are we getting tired of extremism?

Up til now, to be extreme has been the height of fashion.  Even the dullest events and pastimes have jumped on the extreme bandwagon.  Extreme knitting would not have raised an eyebrow.  No limits, all out, leave it on the field.

It’s my suspicion that all this tolerance, and even preference, for extremism is a by-product of the unprecedented prosperity of the two decades prior to the 2008 meltdown.  When things are going well, why impose limits?  Wasn’t “no limits” the mantra of the feel-good 90s?  It was fully entrenched by the time people were engulfed in recession; it must have seemed the right approach to bring the crisis to a close.  There was a lingering suspicion that the problems were caused by timidity, in any case, and all that was required was more bullishness.  It’s a commonplace that the first reaction to an ideological crisis is retrenchment.  We’re having problems?  We haven’t been true enough to our principles.  The Peasants are rebelling, reaffirm the authority of the aristocracy.  Religious fanatics commit mass murder, hurry off to church.  We see it time and again down through history.

Seen in this light, our devotion to the extreme looks less like a devil-may-care embrace of uncertainty, and more like a conservative retrenchment.

But in all such cases, there comes the creeping realization that not only are things not improving under this program, they are actually getting worse.  Retrenchment collapses under its own burdensome weight.

If what we are seeing abroad is the first faint glimmering of this collapse, we can only hope it reaches our shores before the lunatics destroy our government beyond redemption

Egypt’s lesson for America

The term of President Mohamed Mursi ended abruptly Wednesday, as the Egyptian army took control, arrested him, and declared his government over.  A coup, in plain words, toppling the country’s first democratically elected president from power.  We should be outraged.

Or should we?  Mursi’s missteps, succinctly recounted in this Reuters article, seemed to almost ensure his demise, but incompetence, even recalcitrance, alone doesn’t justify annulling a popular election.  What doomed his regime, and what, to me, provided reasonable cause for his removal, was his November 22 hijacking of the constitutional assembly process.  On that day, he assumed for himself emergency powers, by which any and all oversight of the assembly, previously packed with his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots, was crushed.  This included any discussion of the packing itself.

When the assembly predictably returned a constitution leaning heavily toward Islamist principles, the public rebelled, and took to the streets once again.  Mursi’s response: quell the demonstrations, force an early referendum, before the opposition had a chance to organize itself, and ram the new constitution through.  Every move after that was right and proper, according to the new constitution, but if the constitution itself is suspect, such legality is moot.

Mursi’s victory was on the slimmest of margins, and was largely the result of the disunity of the opposition.  As it was, he was forced into a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, who was arguably handicapped by having been Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarek.  Shafik still managed 48.3% of the vote.

This is the crux: having won by a small margin, Mursi proceeded to rule as if he had a crushing mandate, assuming emergency powers when conventional channels disfavored him, and thoroughly ignoring any of the concerns of the opposition, accusing them instead of subversion.  No compromise.

So, the burning question is, is democracy simple majoritarianism?  We hear a lot about majority rule with regard to democracy, but is that all there is to it?  In the United States, the constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, declares otherwise.  The very concept of rights quite bluntly limits the power of the majority to enforce its will, and protects minorities from its ill will, right down to the individual.  I use the term “minority” here in its strict sense, not the political sense of identifiable interest group.

But on a subtler level, the implication is that the interests of such minorities must be taken into consideration by the leaders elected by the majority, even when swept into office by groundswell.  Still more, when the margin of majority is as thin as spring ice.

Which brings us to the infamous gridlock of American politics.  It is grounded on the idea that, in a democracy, the winner takes all, that it is unnecessary, even irresponsible, to compromise with the losers.

We seem to have a lot of Mursis in American politics these days.  Let’s take Egypt’s fate as an object lesson, and avoid that treacherous path.