The chroniclers of the time say that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address surprised everyone in its brevity. His predecessor on the platform, a well-known orator, took two hours to perform a speech of 13,000 words, all forgotten. But Lincoln’s 300 words, delivered in a few minutes, went down in history as containing a definition, in just 11 words, of what a democratic government must be.
That definition was “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” and is not just rhetoric. It is still there today, enshrined in Article 2 of the Constitution of the French Republic, which held its presidential elections on Sunday. Yes, the 1958 Constitution establishes Lincoln’s triple distinction, in the same terms, as the guiding principle of the Republic. Thanks to Lincoln, everyone has a simple yardstick to distinguish a government that is democratic from one that isn’t. Government of the people because acting in the people’s name, and representing its identity and aspiration; government by the people of freely elected representatives; government for the people because the task of these representatives is to serve and benefit the citizens, not to serve and benefit a few.
We may notice that Lincoln omitted to speak of transparency and of the quality of public debate as central elements in a democracy. After all, without transparency or public debate democracy is impossible, because the citizen cannot know if the government is operating in his name and for his benefit. However, it is likely that Lincoln took this aspect of democracy for granted. When he spoke, only 2,294 years had gone by since Pericles, in another famous funeral oration in 431 BC, established a radical dividing line between Athens and her enemies, in that “it is we ourselves who deliberate, and decide on public matters. We do not believe that debate is prejudicial to action. What is really prejudicial to action is not to be instructed by discussion, before doing what has to be done.”
We honor Greece, even now as she lies prostrate, for the Greeks were the first to see that without public debate there is no democracy; and we see to what extent democracy is an issue in the elections now in France, Greece, Germany (though only regional) and, let us not forget, in Serbia. Among all the bad news we have been receiving these days, we should not ignore the good. In a very incipient and fragmented way, with a content that is fragile and reversible, we have in recent weeks been seeing the emergence of a forum of public debate in the European ambit.
Oddly enough, the debate is cropping up where we least expected it. The Europeans are equipped with a Parliament, enormously generous to itself. However, it has so far proved incapable of generating that European public sphere, which we so badly need, especially in a crisis. If it hasn’t done so, it has not been for lack of desire, as decades of debates and institutional experiments bear witness, but for lack of real, effective power. At the present time, neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament have the power or moral authority to do anything about the crisis.
What does have the authority is the European Central Bank (ECB), an institution which, to hold a simple meeting in Barcelona, needs the protection of 8,000 police, the cordoning off of a large city, and the suspension of the Schengen accords on the free circulation of people. Not bad for an institution that is supposedly technical and non-political, whose formal brief is to control inflation by the setting of interest rates. The vibrant debate between Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande that we saw last Wednesday evening makes it clear that democracy, in spite of the difficulties it is undergoing, is the only way to generate the legitimacy needed for climbing out of the crisis. At least on Sunday, after the ECB meeting, it was the people’s turn to speak.
This column first appeared in El Pais.
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