05 February 2011

Civility and the small-c constitution: lessons for Egypt’s future

The following is this week’s instalment of my biweekly column, Deliberation, for Capital Commentary, published by the Center for Public Justice:

More than half a century ago the great American journalist Walter Lippmann, in grappling with the dilemmas of democracy, urged the recovery of a public philosophy rooted in traditions of civility. Last week in this space Michael Gerson gave readers Two Reasons for Civility, averring that its firmest foundation comes from a general belief that human beings are created in God’s image. This, he claimed, is the basis on which the founders crafted their balanced constitutional system.

However, the founders’ efforts would have come to naught if the American people themselves had not already cultivated traditions of civility in their thirteen political bodies in the run-up to the outbreak of the War for Independence. These in turn were inherited largely from the centuries-old English constitution with its roots extending back at least to Magna Carta in 1215 and embodied in the principles of the Common Law.

This underscores the huge importance of what political scientists call political culture and what the classic political philosophers called the constitution, with a small “c.” A constitution in this larger sense is more than just a scrap of paper. It embodies not only the existing political institutions but the attitudes carried in the hearts of the people towards such intangibles as respect for authority, the rule of law, styles of political leadership and tolerance of corruption. This unwritten constitution is more enduring than a document that might bear that title. It would not be inaccurate to conclude that the American small-c constitution is much older than the document titled the Constitution of the United States of America, the latter of which could not exist without the former.

The true genius of the American constitution lies, not with the founders, astute though they may have been, but with the people themselves. Had the traditions of civility not already been a part of this constitution, all the good intentions of the architects of the Constitution would have fallen flat. Examples of this are not difficult to find. After the outbreak of revolution in 1789 France underwent multiple régime changes. Its paper constitutions were so short-lived that one observer has called them “periodical literature.” Yet its small-c constitution, with its centuries-old tradition of strong unitary government capped by a powerful executive, has been more durable, eventually culminating in the institutions of the Fifth Republic, in effect since 1958.

At the moment we are facing what appears to be a revolution in Egypt that will have repercussions throughout North Africa and the Middle East. To champion democratic reforms in that country seems a sensible policy for the United States to pursue. Clearly the foreign policy “realists” who support a dictator simply because he is “our” dictator are asking for trouble over the long term as the people in the street take matters into their own hands.

Nevertheless, building democracy in the region is no simple matter, as institutions require the living traditions of civility rooted in a longstanding small-c constitution. The notion that we can simply transplant institutions that flourish in one environment into a less hospitable one stands in strong need of a reality check. Successfully channelling street protests into orderly public participation at the polls is by no means assured. Political cultures do not change that quickly.

This is not to say that we should give up hope. It is to say that finely-tuned institutions cannot by themselves create a political culture of civility. To do this requires hard work on the part of the people themselves, probably starting at the local level and working with the existing institutions of civil society. Change may come over many years—perhaps generations—but it will require more than a measure of patience on everyone’s part.

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