Nation-Building: A Comparison, Part V

For the introduction to this series of essays, see the opening paragraphs of the April 2003 issue of “Reflections on Russia.”

Part V: Learning the Art of Political Civility and Compromise

America’s Early Experience in Building a Democratic Political System

Many Americans who witnessed George Washington’s trip from Mount Vernon to New York to assume his new role as the country’s first president were amazed by the respect he generated. But the newly elected President had no illusions. He wrote to a friend that he faced “an ocean of difficulties.”

Unlike European revolutions where the victors take over the existing machinery of government, President Washington inherited from the American Confederation nothing but a dozen clerks with their pay in arrears, an empty treasury, and a large debt from war expenses. The American army consisted of 672 officers and men and the navy had ceased to exist. There were no taxes coming in and no machinery for collecting taxes. As one historian noted, “No successful leader of a revolution has been so naked before the world as Washington in 1789.”

The radical changes brought about by the successful War of Independence against England made the first decades of America’s existence very tenuous. President Washington was vividly aware of this and often compared the mechanism of America’s government to that of a clock – it was intricate, but small and fragile, and mistakes could easily wreck it. What made the situation even more difficult were the passions of the time. Americans of all political persuasions were passionate because the stakes were so high. So much was being decided for the first time, and it seemed that if anything was settled, it might be decided for the last time.

During President Washington’s administration, a Secretary of State was forced to resign under suspicion of treason, a Congressional leader was stabbed in a political argument, a Senator was expelled from office for treason, and the Secretary of the Treasury was accused of speculating on treasury certificates for his own profit. In addition, the Republican and Federalist parties engaged in slanderous exchanges that revealed the deep antagonisms that were emerging in the new republic.

The election of 1800, that was deadlocked in the House of Representatives because of a tie vote for the two leading candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, dragged on until talk of preventing an election and starting a civil war could be heard. Virginia militia were preparing to march on Washington, D.C., the new home of the government, but fortunately the issue was settled when three Federalists finally gave in and Jefferson was elected President by a majority of two states. The behavior of political leaders in this campaign may have been the worst in America’s history.

Russia’s Early Experience in Building a Democratic Political System

The fragility and the passions that were a part of building a democratic government in America were also evident in Russia’s birthing process in the 1990s. As Boris Yeltsin grew in popularity as an “outsider” and critic of the Communist Party leadership and its privileges, the frustration and cynicism of many ordinary citizens were vented in public demonstrations and rallies in Moscow and other Russian cities in the late 1980s. The failed coup of August 1991, with Yeltsin standing in defiance of the coup leaders on top of an army tank in front of the White House, created a conviction that Russia was entering a new age. Yeltsin was also “naked” on the world stage, like President Washington two hundred years earlier, and there were expectations for his leadership from all corners of the globe.

The political turmoil that surrounded President Yeltsin’s administration is not surprising but, unlike the revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe, the governing elites were the same people who held positions of power in the previous government of the Soviet Union. Russia’s new leadership was not made up of dissidents or opponents of the Communist regime who were recently released from prison, but rather were representatives of the old regime who now had to figure out to cope with the new changes in governance.

Fistfights on the floor of the Duma (parliament), accusations of corruption and intrigue, the blackmailing of opponents, exaggerated charges of manipulation and “backroom dealings” – these were experiences that are not unexpected in an environment of passion where major decisions are being made about the future course of a nation. Fortunately for Russia, their first president was committed to not using force and violence as a means of repressing internal dissent, a tactic all too often experienced in the previous history of the country. Like in America where the charges of treason in the “Whiskey Rebellion” were dropped and the opponents treated mercifully, the confrontation at the White House in 1993 ended with the leaders of the revolt being pardoned.

A Critical Decision: Learning Political Civility

Learning to practice civility in political dialogue and debate does not come naturally. When the stakes are high and the risks are extraordinary, it is not to be assumed that political leaders will demonstrate mutual respect. In both of our nations, these qualities are only learned over time. The key in the American experience was the recognition that power and authority derived from the people – popular sovereignty – but this lesson was not quickly learned and the new fledging republic had to go through difficult times before the art of political civility and compromise was ingrained and became a “standard operating procedure.” This involves a steep learning curve, especially for Russians who have to overcome a legacy of centuries of authoritarian rule, but the desire for “normalcy” is there.