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Does the Worst News Contain the Best?

In June I attended the International Society for Third Sector Research in Stockholm. Although I chaired an exciting panel on the suppression of civil society and presented awards, the most memorable moment for me was when a Swedish professor described the dramatic growth of civil society in Iraq, despite, or maybe even because of, the violence. When he first began studying Iraq, “you could count the indigenous NGOs on one hand. Now they are everywhere, doing everything- health, microenterprise promotion, women’s rights…

As someone who has written a book about the emergence of democratization NGOs, from, among other events, the Sustained Dialogue that ended the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s, I confess to suffering from cognitive dissonance in hearing his observation. And yet historians have long pointed to advances following catastrophes. The desire for peace follows war, just as dictatorship or even less extreme repression often leads to democratic advocacy. What is perhaps different about the Iraq example, and also a recent linkedin post by Virgil Haden-Pawlowski about the same phenomenon in Syria, is that political sanity emerges not just following insanity but also from within it. Unfortunately, the situation is Syria is so catastrophic, that indigenous Syrian NGOs have to operate from Turkey. Nonetheless, they have pioneered both solar panels at hospitals and agricultural extension in Syria, by bringing Syrian and foreign experts together, while relying on local knowledge. All of this depends upon collective brainstorming among doctors, civil engineers, teachers, and social workers. “Most important, the local organizations are the enablers and access openers of Syrian society. They are the faces that the communities trust deeply. They are seen as members of the affected society themselves, and that changes everything. “

There is another, more state-centered path supporting failed states before they collapse into violent chaos. Despite the developed world’s obsession with ranking rather than supporting other countries, the G7+, in partnership with the Overseas Development Institute, has developed a sort of self-help group for “fragile states,” 20 countries that regularly appear at the bottom of development and democracy indices and have joined this international support group based on three assumptions: that each situation is unique, that local citizens are the most able to understand their own situations and that external assessments often gloss over “early signs of progress,” which exist despite or even because of chaos and violence. Self-assessment, a “pillar” of this approach, brings together governments, civil society, political parties, and business to assess political legitimacy, public services, security, justice and the economy. Country-specific responses include positive local traditions such as customary judicial processes. So even this approach depends on civil society, albeit not exclusively, as has often been the case in Iraq and Syria.

I wrote the first draft of this blog before the U.S. election. And I now find it strangely relevant to the situation in our own country. Will the election of Donald Trump produce a strong enough counter-reaction in defense of our basic democratic values? U.S. exceptionalism in the world should not be based on military power or nationalist braggadocio, but on our ability to defend liberty, equality and self-government.

The 100+ democracy activists I interviewed in three very different countries-South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina- were united in their admiration for the U.S. as the first country in history to, over time, implement democratic values. Astonished by their scholarly immersion in the great Enlightenment thinkers and our founding fathers, I described them in the book as the “heirs to the Enlightenment.”

These values, however, have to be anchored in two other values– truth and rationality. When fake news replaces honest, impartial journalism, the quality of freedom of speech declines. When scientific research on climate change is under assault, then so is the value of reason, or at least a reasoned discourse about the issue.

Those of us in the popular vote majority who did not vote for Donald Trump are now faced with an almost existential dilemma. Do we oppose this assault on reason and facts unrelentingly, and its embodiment in Donald Trump, or do we try to understand and reach across the chasm dividing Americans? My response is, frankly, conflicted. On the one hand, I want to transfer my major research interests to U.S. “democratization NGOs ” – the Brennan Center, Brand New Congress, Project Vote Smart and the League of Women Voters come to mind– and thereby underline the need for a strong defense of American democracy by our nonprofit sector and the broader civil society. When the cast of Hamilton lectured Mike Pence about American values, I applauded. On the other hand, I want to respond to glimmers of hope from the other side of the chasm. I have to admit that I liked Pence’s admonition to his children that the booing from the audience was the “sound of liberty.”

A discussion across the political chasm could focus on these values. But only if both sides recognize, as did our founding fathers, that these values must be anchored in reason and facts. So far, the sounds from the other side of the chasm are ominous and frightening.

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