America's democracy, our social contract crafted with wisdom, prudence and foresight almost two and a half centuries ago, is the envy of the world. That is a fact that we Americans sometimes take for granted and yet, not until you travel the world, especially to places where democracy has been elusive or erratic, can you truly appreciate how other nations revere our process of self-governance. While we recognize that no system of government is perfect, what our Constitution has set forth is a framework that not only lays out the laws by which we all agree to live but also our collective values, our national identity. And in classrooms around the world, our democracy is held up as an example of what is possible when you freely empower the people to make decisions.
Given this global respect for our nation's democratic ideals, it is disconcerting to say the least to hear recriminations on the national political stage that suggest the upcoming presidential election could possibly be "rigged." Irrespective of whether such allegations have been uttered cavalierly in the heat of a political moment or raised as some tactical political diversion, the fact is that these allegations can have lasting impact beyond our national boundaries. Although most Americans will shrug these comments off as baseless partisan rhetoric, parts of the world may not be as quick to do so, potentially undercutting what could already be a fragile commitment to democracy within other countries. After all, they could well reason, if the United States can no longer maintain its fidelity to an honest and fair process, how can we hope to replicate or sustain this system within our own country? And just as regrettable, it is the kind of comment that can plant dangerous seeds of cynicism among idealistic children far and wide.
In the fall of 2000 I was the country director for an NGO working in Egypt focused on helping improve access to school for young girls. I was in a week-long planning workshop with my Egyptian colleagues when the drama unfolded regarding the U.S. presidential elections - hanging chads and recounts and, ultimately, a Supreme Court ruling. The events became the focal point of the meeting, each break someone rushing to a TV to bring back the latest news. It was a real-time transcontinental civic lesson. When Vice President Gore conceded the election to George W. Bush, my Egyptian colleagues noted with envy the workings of a true democracy, of the peaceful transition of power from one party to the next.
To Egyptians, who lived at that time within a faux democracy (i.e. a one presidential candidate referendum), the contrast between their "democracy" and ours could not have been greater. Even at the local level, there was much passion for real democracy. I recall starting a PTA at a local school where parents would vote to elect the organization's leadership. To these parents, it was the first time that they felt their vote truly mattered. The election was a highly contested one, with villagers quietly standing in line for hours waiting for their turn to vote. Grassroots democracy at the local level was an infectious concept, although unfortunately for Egypt, not infectious enough to take root and flourish beyond the Arab Spring.
These days my work brings me to many developing countries around the world. I often ask the children I meet what they want to be when they grow up. The most common answer? Teachers. To many of them, it is the only profession to which they have ever been exposed, given the fact that most of their parents earn their living as subsistence farmers or day laborers. When I suggest that some of them (boys and girls) could someday be their nation's future president, I would invariably get nervous giggles in return. It is a dream few would even contemplate, a concession perhaps to a system that does not rely on one person, one vote.
Our best hope for ensuring that democracy takes root around the world is to continue to set an unblemished example to the rest of the world and provide an instructive model of government for future generations of leaders. To suggest that the United States would somehow abandon our principles and long history of fair and honest elections is irresponsible. I have no doubt that our electoral process will continue with the same high standards as has been its tradition. Children around the world need to be inspired - both by our words and our deeds - to dream big and turn those dreams into a future reality. The world is counting on them.