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Blood Sport Politics

PRINCETON – Former US President Bill Clinton gave one of the best speeches of his life at the recent Democratic National Convention. One of the biggest rounds of applause came when he said that President Barack Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State after she had been his principal political rival proved that “democracy does not have to be a blood sport.”

That applause reflected the view of the majority of American voters that US politics has become much too partisan, and that rivals are more interested in attacking each other – “drawing blood” – than they are in focusing on political issues. But what President Clinton was really saying was that Secretary Clinton’s ability to go to other countries and work with her former political rival in pursuit of the national interest is a powerful example of the way democracy is supposed to work.

That is an important point to make, because in far too many countries democracy remains – literally – a blood sport. The value of the ballot is to seize power and then harass, detain, or even kill your opponents. As the slogan goes: “One man, one vote, one time.” Indeed, the National Endowment for Democracy in the US describes some countries as “electoral dictatorships.”

Many fear precisely such an outcome for the Arab awakening, with popular movements toppling despots, only to install new dictators via elections. The only way to avoid it is to be more committed to the process of electing a government freely and fairly than to the leader or party that is elected, even when the victor is frankly inimical to your interests.