We’re Being Out-Democracied

On March 1, Doug Saunders of Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported from Zarzis, Tunisia:

The entire student population, plus one teacher, have defied their principal’s orders and skipped school to pack the streets in a jubilant and defiant mood. They are demanding a quick move to democracy — not just in the capital of Tunis, but also here in Zarzis, where it is the youth who have forced out the regime-appointed mayor and set up a committee that now controls the town.

Walid Fellah, 27, one of the organizers of the local-government committee. . . . set up Zarzis TV, a Facebook page upon which he posted videos of local protests and government reprisals. It became an instant hit and fanned the local revolution. . . . The comment threads on Zarzis TV became a rallying point for students, who would spend hours debating the best structure for municipal government and the pathway to elections.

“These students were never taught anything about democracy . . . but they’re learning it all by experience,” said Mourad Dani, 32, the lone high-school teacher willing to join the school’s “revolution.” (He risks suspension from his job, and the students risk losing their diplomas, for being involved.)

In one respect, though, they resemble American students. Mr. Dani added:

“Before, government was the most boring subject, nobody thought about it.”

With one important difference.

“Now it’s all they can talk about.”

No matter to what extent the civic foundation of the United States disintegrated, it’s difficult to imagine American teenagers debating the structure of municipal government. Meanwhile, the Obama administration was a couple of beats slow in voicing its support for the opposition in Tunisia and Egypt. As for American adult citizens, one can’t help suspect that were the Constitution drawn up and submitted for ratification today, it would be considered much too radical for passage in the House and Senate.

Recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere caution one against caving in to complete cynicism. Still, it’s entirely likely that most Americans are more comfortable with a surveillance (if not all-out police) state than one in which civil liberties rang throughout the land. If America is China’s future, China may be America’s future.

We’d better be careful: we’re about to be out-democracied by newly engaged citizens around in the world.