Like Soviets, Americans still seeking ideal democracy

Bill Bishop

August 28, 1991|By Bill Bishop

LEXINGTON, KY. — ON THE DAY of the coup that sent the Soviet Union teetering between democratic promise and a totalitarian past, the Committee for the State of Emergency in the Soviet Union issued a statement that is standard issue to American politicians.

It was a law and order speech, plain and simple. The short text prepared by the coup leaders in fact contained the gist of themes that have won five of the past six American presidential elections.

The instigators of the coup talked about "the mortal danger" that loomed over the country. They bemoaned "mass manifestations of spontaneous discontent."

They predicted societal decay: "Never before in national history has the propaganda of sex and violence assumed such a scale, threatening the health and lives of future generations." They promised protection against "crime and glaring immorality."

The leaders of the coup that threatened what little democracy exists in the Soviet Union said they intended to "restore law and order straight away, end bloodshed, declare a war without mercy to the criminal world, eradicate shameful phenomena discrediting our society."

Sound familiar? It should.

In the current language of American politics, this was an appeal to "the silent majority." In the midst of the civil rights and Vietnam War protests of 1968, Richard Nixon proclaimed himself the "law and order" candidate.

"We owe it to the decent and law abiding citizens of America," candidate Nixon said in a television commercial, "to take the offensive against the criminal forces that threaten their peace and security."

Law and order has always been the theme of the powers that be. Nearly a century ago, William McKinley was the champion of the law-abiding citizenry. McKinley faced William Jennings Bryan and made the 1896 election a contest between the forces of decency and those of radicalism and violence.

"Let us settle once for all that this government is one of honor and of law," McKinley said, "and that neither the seeds of repudiation nor lawlessness can find root in our soil or live beneath our flag."

While Bryan spoke about the nation's economy, of the need to provide justice to farmers and laborers, McKinley's campaign distributed American flags, millions of them, and made the nation's banner the symbol of conservative politics.

It is easy to belabor the point, but the themes meant to gloss over the intent of the Russian coup are in this country tireless themselves. In 1990, George Bush crushed Michael Dukakis. Bush's issues were, again, allegiance to the flag, and, in the form of Willie Horton, law and order.

The Russian people are new to democracy, perhaps, but they have some experience with power. Government, any government long rooted, works first to defend itself.

"It is error alone which needs the support of government," Thomas Jefferson warned. "Truth can stand by itself." The Russians who confronted the tanks last week knew this implicitly.

Law and order is a cover, in the United States and the Soviet Union. Sexual promiscuity, moral decay and crime in the streets are issues used to divert attention from fundamental questions about who controls government and why. Never has that been more clear than in the past week.

In three short days, the ad hoc election in the Soviet Union was over, and the law and order candidates had lost. The people of that vast country are now embarked on the most difficult journey any society can take: They are searching for a way to live in peace and in democracy.

It is our journey, too. And as we look in the mirror of what has happened half a world away, it is easy to see that our own democratic travels are not near complete.

Bill Bishop is an editorial columnist for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Regulars Jack Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation.

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