Posted on April 05, 1999 in Washington Watch

In a democracy, most major policy issues, both foreign and domestic, are subjected to intense public debate. Through this political process, policy is influenced and shaped. This can be one of democracy’s greatest strengths.

But, even in a democracy, it is difficult to have a free and open debate about some issues. While this problem has, for years, haunted Arab Americans and supporters of Palestinian rights, I was reminded of it last week when the U.S. Major League baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, traveled to Havana to play against the Cuban national team.

In the midst of the game, it all seemed so natural. Cuba is a small poor country only 90 miles from the United States. They play baseball; we play baseball. And yet, despite this small gesture, those who support expanding normalization with Cuba and ending the decades old U.S. embargo of that country should not get their hopes up.

Especially in the year before a presidential election, it will be quite difficult to entertain any serious political debate about U.S.-Cuban policy.

The reason for this is quite simple. There is a substantial and well-organized block of anti-Castro Cuban Americans concentrated in the state of Florida. Their numbers are large and they vote. Any presidential candidate hoping to win that state’s support in the 2000 election will not want to alienate Cuban Americans.

The fear politicians have of the anti-Castro Cuban vote is quite similar to their approach to Jewish American voters. The following examples are illustrative of this point.

I’ve written before about my experiences at the 1988 Democratic Convention where I helped to lead the effort to have a public debate on Palestinian rights. I still recall the near hysteria of the party leaders who insisted that no debate take place. Two very prominent leaders actually told me that if I persisted in my efforts “you will be responsible for the destruction of this party.” That was how extreme their reaction was.

Their fears were prompted by their belief that if Democrats had even a temperate and rational debate on the Palestinian question, the powerful bloc of Jewish American voters concentrated in New York and a few other key states would be so infuriated that Democrats would lose elections in that state thereby threatening the party’s viability.

The reaction of most party leaders to Cuba is about the same. In 1994, while I was serving on the Resolutions Committee of the Democratic Party, I was approached by Jesse Jackson, Jr. (now a Congressman from Illinois) who asked me if I would support a resolution he would introduce calling for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Once again, as was the case of our 1988 effort on behalf of Palestinian rights, the reaction was neither civil nor rational. The merits or logic of our case was not to be considered. Instead some party leader reminded us, in an emotional plea, that Republicans currently get the vast majority of Cuban American votes. In order to be competitive in statewide Florida elections, Democrats need to increase their share of Cuban American voters. Passing this resolution, we were told, would virtually end the chances for a Democrat to win an election in that state.

I must point out that this inability to rationally discuss a controversial issue is not limited to the Democratic Party. In 1992, a lone Arab American member of the Republican National Committee attempted to pass a resolution at his party’s annual meeting that simply expressed the Republican Party’s support of the effort by President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to achieve a resolution of the Middle East conflict based on the formula of “land for peace”. The resolution not only failed to pass–it received virtually no support at all–and this from President Bush’s own party!

Domestic issues are not exempt from this phenomenon of politics and fear silencing debate. The treatment of the question of abortion provides a clear example.

In 1992, Republicans booed speakers at their national convention who even made oblique references to the need to be tolerant of different views on abortion. Those who support a more open political discussion within the Republican Party call for the party to have a “big tent”–by which they mean that the party ought to be big enough to include some divergent views under its tent.

Supporters of this call for tolerance within the Republican Party have so far been unsuccessful.

If the Republican Party has shown such intolerance for supporters of abortion, Democrats have been as intolerant of those who oppose abortion.

Again, in 1992, two women members of the Democratic Party’s platform committee attempted to introduce a rather modest amendment that would have placed some limits on abortion rights. I will never forget the cold hostility with which these women were greeted. Their motion was never even discussed. Later, that same year, at the national party convention, the popular governor of Pennsylvania was denied the opportunity to speak at the event.

In each instance noted above and in the case of a host of other issues as well, the fear of debate is based on the fear of alienating specific pressure groups. It represents the weak underside of democracy. This flaw occurs in the process when, on any issue, there can be no free exchange of ideas because there exists an asymmetry in power between the groups that represent different points of views.

The result is not only a stifling of discussion, but a distortion of the democratic process and, in all cases, bad policy.

In the case of Cuba the result has been the devastating isolation of that small island. Instead of attempting to engage Cuba and seek a peaceful transformation of Cuban society (as, for example, the United States is seeking to constructively engage China)–both Republicans and Democrats compete with each other to impose increasingly harsh sanctions on the Castro government.

On the other hand, the same dynamic when applied to Israel, has produced a ratcheting up of benefits to the Jewish state and increasingly harsh sanctions against some Arab and Muslim countries.

In the case of abortion, the results of this distortion of political discourse have been the growing distance between both Republicans and Democrats in how they view this controversial issue. Within each camp there is no discussion and between each camp there is no compromise, only hostility and harsh rhetoric.

The politics that emerge from this flawed process are akin to dogmatic rigidity and are antithetical to real democracy. It is an abuse of power–where one group, or the fear of some to confront that group, results in the silencing of another group. This is not democracy, it is fundamentalism–and it should be opposed whenever it manifests itself.

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