Baghdad and Philadelphia

John Zvesper

September 1, 2005

Is the hot summer in Baghdad in 2005 comparable to the hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787? What lessons should Iraqi constitution makers learn from America’s founders?

Many commentators in America are comparing the Iraqi and American constitution-making experiences. On one side, the comparison is intended to encourage our patience. President Bush and his supporters constantly remind us, as the President recently did in his address to the Idaho National Guard, that “producing a constitution is a difficult process. It involves a lot of debate and compromise. We know that from our own history. Our Constitutional Convention was the home to political rivalries and regional disagreements.”

On the other side, skeptics and partisan opponents of Bush point to obvious differences between the political conditions and cultures of early America and contemporary Iraq, differences that seem to them to make any comparison of the deliberations in Baghdad with those of Philadelphia dangerously—and perhaps also insultingly—inaccurate.

In fact, the more instructive American experience for contemporary Iraq is not the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, but the American partisan conflicts of the 1790s. The center of these conflicts also happened to be the city of Philadelphia, which during that decade was the temporary capital of the United States. These first modern partisan conflicts led to the world’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power from one party to another, in the electoral “Revolution of 1800.” In one way, the constitutional deliberations in Iraq are undeniably better placed than those of the Philadelphia convention: thanks to America’s experience with party politics—experience that began a few years after the Constitution of 1787 was ratified—modern democrats know that political parties are an important part of democratic government. The first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were not prepared to give political parties the respectability that the third President, Thomas Jefferson, saw that they must have.

The lessons that American history has for liberal democrats (in America as well as elsewhere) include many prudent considerations about governmental structures, but behind and above those considerations there are two even more important lessons:

First, there is a lesson about the essential place of principles in politics. Here the most relevant historical point is not that it was difficult for America’s founders to agree on institutional matters. It is rather that in the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans fell away from essential democratic principles—and paid the price, an awful civil war: a return to bullets instead of ballots. In spite of Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent reminders, many Americans turned away from what they had learned from their founders. Every democracy is an “emerging” democracy, given this danger of neglecting or denying essential principles.

Secondly is a lesson about the extent to which conflicts of principle can be allowed in modern democratic politics. Only in their experience of partisan politics did Americans learn what kinds of principle are properly subject to partisan disputes in modern democracies. The most basic lesson America has for modern democrats is that there are three distinct kinds of principle relevant to democratic politics.

First, there are principles that must be avoided in politics. Of course, this prohibition was not disputed in the USA either in 1787 or in the 1790s, at least not nearly as much as it is disputed in Iraq today. It is the old lesson taught by reasoning about European as well as American experience in the seventeenth century: you must not decide purely theological questions by political means, whether by bullets or by ballots, if you want to have a peaceful political life rather than a recurring civil war. In the USA, as James Madison pointed out, one circumstance that favored the legal establishment of such a prohibition—far more at the union than at the state level—was the multiplicity of religious sects. A similar circumstance might work, however gradually, towards its establishment in Iraq. This circumstance would be as important as the Iraqi Constitution’s guarantee of “full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices.”

Secondly, there are essential principles of government that all democratic citizens must agree upon—even if they do not spell them out in a ringing American-style Declaration. These principles include the natural political equality (i.e. freedom) of human beings, along with at least two imperatives that follow from that natural fact: government must be directed to the people’s safety and happiness (not to the governors’ alone), and it must be instituted and operated by consent of the governed. Constantly matching the requirements of those two imperatives is the main task for democratic statesmanship, in the USA, in Iraq, and everywhere else.

The principal way that such matching occurs is through decisive partisan elections. Principles of the third kind, unlike the first two, are properly subject to partisan disputes among democratic citizens, and to settlement—however temporary—by parties’ electoral victories and defeats. These appropriately partisan principles are contentions neither about theology nor about the essential and timeless principles of government, but about what institutional or policy initiatives are best in the given circumstances of a particular democracy, here and now.

Naturally, partisan leaders will often confuse this third kind of principle with the second, if only to fire up their partisan hyperbole and to animate their partisan allies. For example, when Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the party that won the elections of 1800, summarized in his First Inaugural Address what he called the “essential principles” of American government, he included among those principles his party’s policies on the direction of the country’s economic development. But good democratic citizens and politicians, even when they indulge in such confusing rhetoric, will also maintain their grasp of the crucial distinction between partisan conflicts and the essential principles of representative democratic government.

American history’s most important lesson for modern democracies—itself included—is the distinction among these three kinds of principles: those always to be avoided, those always to be embraced, and those subject to partisan electoral dispute. Only insofar as Iraqis learn this lesson will their political life become promising.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American living in Southern France.