We could learn a few things about appreciating democracy from countries that are relatively new to it. In Tunisia this week, something like 80 or 90 % of registered voters went to the polls, and peacefully went about selecting a new assembly. Meanwhile, legislators in the United States, which has shamefully low rates of participation, are busy dreaming up ways of making it more difficult for people to vote, on the pretext that they are worried about voter fraud, a practically non-existent problem in this country. If we were seriously interested in preventing voter fraud, we might try the simple, cheap and effective method they use in Tunisia:
Many of the reports about the election are focused on the outcome, indicating that an Islamist party, Ennahda, won the largest number of seats. But the outcome is only one indication of whether Tunisia is headed toward becoming a free society or not. At this stage, perhaps the level of participation is more important. And perhaps more important than that will be the Constitution that Tunisians write for themselves, and how it will limit the government's powers and protect the people's rights.
Sometimes we act as though people in a country like Tunisia have only two choices. They can elect a secularist government that represses religion, or they can elect a religious government that enforces religious laws. They can have a dictatorship that used to prohibit women from wearing headscarves in public, or they can have an Islamist government might force all women to wear headscarves in public. And headscarves are only an example of course.
But there is a third choice. I am not a believer that the US Constitution is perfect, but one thing we got profoundly right was the government's attitude toward religion. The First Amendment requires the government to tolerate all forms of religious practice, but forbids it from forcing any religion on us. I don't think any other countries have come up with a better solution to the problem of government and religion, than that. What we should be watching for in Tunisia, and in other countries affected by the Arab spring, is whether these countries will implement similar Constitutional protections on individual rights. And then we won't have to worry quite so much about which party wins any particular election.