Reference has been made in these pages over the last weeks to Phoenixville as "a gritty, blue-collar town." So, what's politics about, in such a town?
The gritty, blue-collar town of Sinjar, in the northwestern edge of Iraq, has for long been dependent on its cement factory for its survival. The factory was heavily bombed during the war, and looted down to its nuts and bolts after the bombs stopped falling. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were quick to add Sinjar's factory to its post-war reconstruction assessment, and estimated that it would take $23 million and a year or more to bring the factory to full production.
But a new, elected local Iraqi council met, and determined otherwise. In three months, using $10,000 from the local U.S. Marine battalion commander, piecing together what was left in company accounts, and by cannibalizing what was left of one production line for another, the factory was providing employment to a good portion of the town, and has attracted investment proposals from Japanese sources.
This is a story told not to diminish the work of the Corps, but simply to note that the Army's assessment for the Sinjar factory was made with an image of a world-class, state-of-the-art plant as its end product. Cynics might say that such a facility would be a ready-made customer for U.S. technology, although there would be no more than circumstantial evidence to support that argument. No, I suspect that something other, and deeper, but simpler was going on here - that a simple presumption trumped a realistic assessment of the need to be met.
As a matter of course, democracy in gritty, hardscrabble towns will deal with issues on their face, because they are so indelibly and irreversibly there. For most of our history, the fate of any discussion of public policies in our town was tied with that of the company, as Sinjar's was and is with its cement factory. That any of those issues have been dealt with in some form of democratic process is itself a testament to the strength of a not so simple conviction about democratic rule, nothing more and certainly nothing less.
Politics, and particularly democratic politics, is no natural and inevitable development of human experience. Ever since the Greeks discovered politics as a form of organization of community life, its utility has been open to question. Indeed, even for the Greeks periods of distinctively political rule were brief, though all other periods were measured against them. In the modern age of democratic politics, ancient concerns are echoed in Winston Churchill's claim that "Democracy is the worst form of government - except for all of the others."
Against those forms of governance that emerge from the hierarchies of family and status and power, democratic politics makes the claim that in the public arena, all participants are equal. Persons otherwise dissimilar in strengths, weaknesses, gifts, station, and fundamental perspectives are made equal for the sake of public deliberation and decision.
Indeed, that equality preserves the very distinctiveness that each person brings to the public arena. E pluribus unum, with as much emphasis on the pluribus as on the unum - and the on the pluribus we rely for the best of all possible collective judgments.
However, there is no guarantee of the outcomes of such distinctively political practice. The pluribus makes politics infamously and incurably unpredictable, and coming to common conclusion sometimes agonizingly difficult. That was Churchill's problem.
We persist in support of democratic rule on the strength of the claim of all persons to political equality. It lives on the faith that whatever the outcome, the way in which the outcome was reached was just. The Greeks prized political rule not for what utility it promised - for it could guarantee nothing in regard to results - but for what it preserved: a space where persons could speak and act as equals. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.
It is that conviction that lies at the base of what we are exporting to Iraq, to Afghanistan, wherever American hands are in "nation-building" adventures. In so far as that is the case, the American faith can find its justification as noble. Practically speaking, the more local governing councils, the better.
But, like the Corps of Engineers in Sinjar, conviction can come with a great deal of presumptuous baggage. There is now considerable despair that negotiations toward an Aghan constitution in its loya jirga have fallen apart, and there is suspicion that the schedule for completion of an Iraqi constitution may again be delayed. In both cases, the culprit seems to be ethnic differences and distrust. But in both cases, our own expectations of proper outcome may be misplaced.
Democratic political rule takes practice, and it must take hold in ways shaped by the experiences of its times and places. Our own framers feared for the permanence of Constitutional arrangements, given the enormous task of fitting them to the circumstances of a large and diverse population. And that fear has been tested constantly, notably and tellingly on issues regarding the political equality of difference in the face of distrust.
In Sinjar, it took what looks simple to us - a meeting of a local council - to pull American proposals back to the ground. An Iraqi said in regard to the factory that "the Americans are trying to deal with us at an American level. But our businesses here, they work differently." It may be that politically our simplest contribution is the very best contribution that can be made to nation-building, based on our own experience: establishing the conditions for political rule to be practiced. That's quite a lot. To do more may be creating political mischief for those we serve, and for us ourselves.
G.E. "Skip" Lawrence is a Phoenixville resident.