I’ve just come off of an amazing three-day meeting convened by the Kettering Foundation: the Deliberative Democracy Exchange. There were about two hundred participants from all over the world coming together to exchange thoughts and think through little-d democratic politics, a politics that’s about deliberation, engagement, and civic agency. I like to describe democracy as the opportunity for all who are affected by public matters to have the ability to shape their world. That’s pretty basic, but still a lot to hope for.
Last night there was a panel of speakers form Latin American, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand who talked about the state of democracy in the world today. I was struck by the Columbian who said to America, keep your money, help us build civil society. And I was especially struck by the Jordanian, speaking for the Middle East, talking about why it has been so hard for the Arab world to become democratic. There are internal and external factors, he noted. Internally there was the problem that various Arab regimes seized on the Israel problem as an excuse for forestalling democracy. Externally there was the problem that the best beacon for democracy — the U.S. — was modeling anything but democracy in the Middle East, by supporting dictators and brutal regimes, by waging an endless war, not supporting peace. I got the message from all that the United States is still a country that others in the world admire and love for its values; they just wish the U.S. would start living up to them.