We awoke to the sound of gunfire. It was a Monday morning. I turned on the radio. Handel’s Water Music was playing, an unusual selection in the West African nation of Ghana. A friend rushed into the house. “A coup! A coup! A coup!” was his excited cry.
Many countries in Africa, South America and Asia and island nations have experienced violent changes of government. These sudden, often unforeseen, upheavals make for more interesting politics than what we have in the Western democracies. But they take an enormous toll-not only in lives but also in terms of economic progress and stability.
A seldom-stated fact of life is that without political stability it is impossible to have economic progress. Until a nation has a stable political system in place, it is impossible for people to plan their lives, conduct business successfully and go about their daily routines with any hope for the future.
It is remarkable how few nations have had political stability during the last century. If the longevity of a government, together with the repeated peaceful transfer of power without civil war or other internal upheaval, is an indicator of political stability, then the success stories in today’s world are few.
Stability essential but elusive
The nations that shine in this regard are the English-speaking countries. Britain itself has enjoyed a high degree of political stability since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After the death of Queen Anne, in 1714, the same dynasty (with a few name changes) has sat on the throne for almost 300 years, with peaceful transfers of elected governments taking place during that time.
Through ties with the British crown, other nations have enjoyed the same stability, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A system of checks and balances has generally ensured that no one person has too much power, thereby guaranteeing peaceful, stable government. When nations have severed the tie with the crown, political instability has often been the result.
The American system of government is built on similar checks and balances. The United States has enjoyed 135 years of political stability since the end of the Civil War.
No other modern nations can boast of such longevity. Whereas Germany, France, Italy, Russia and China have cultures that go back thousands of years, their political systems are relatively new and follow periods of great political upheaval.
The German Federal Republic is less than 50 years old. France’s Fifth Republic dates back to 1958 and is the latest of many constitutional arrangements attempted since the Revolution of 1789. Italy’s republic is also post-World War II and has seen more changes of government than any other Western nation, while Russia and China have suffered through a century of revolutions, civil wars and other political problems.
Political instability has been the norm for most of the new nations of the world given birth since World War II as the European powers dismantled their colonial empires. Most of these countries are republics with their own presidents, but few have been able to manage successfully the peaceful transition from one leader to another. Even when democratic structures are in place, endemic corruption can erode any government’s claim of legitimacy.
Ironically, many former colonies that benefited from political stability in colonial times have experienced a great deal of chaos since independence. British colonies shared the benefits of the stable British political system while under colonial rule, sometimes for centuries.
The blessing of stability
The United States and the older members of the British Commonwealth have been politically stable for so long that few of their citizens fully understand or appreciate what they have. But demands for constitutional changes that could seriously rupture that stability are increasingly heard.
“God save the king” (or queen) is an old cry, dating to Old Testament times (1 Samuel 10:24 1 Samuel 10:24And Samuel said to all the people, See you him whom the LORD has chosen, that there is none like him among all the people? And all the people shouted, and said, God save the king.
American King James Version×; Daniel 2:4 Daniel 2:4Then spoke the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.
American King James Version×; 5:10). A king’s subjects have good reason for wanting him to live a long time. A reigning monarch is a known entity. His style of rulership is usually predictable. That means stability. For that stability to continue, he must have a proper heir.
Even today church bells ring out across the land in some European countries to announce the birth of a royal heir, assuring the people of another generation of political stability. Russian czars once held their naked newborn sons up in the air on the palace balcony so the people could see that a newborn male heir was alive and well. They could go home safe and secure with the hope that stability would continue at least for the remainder of their lives.
Stable constitutional government
The British system of constitutional monarchy evolved over centuries. Angry and frustrated at the excesses of some medieval kings, nobles gradually increased the powers of the Parliament until the English Civil War in the 1640s involved both king and Parliament in a struggle for dominance. Parliament won. King Charles I lost his head, and England was a republic for a few years.
Even though it set in motion certain reforms, by today’s standards the republic ended up with rigid autocratic rule under Oliver Cromwell. Some of his followers even wanted to make him king, but to his credit he refused. Yet the country was determined that no other politician should ever have absolute powers, and it soon restored the monarchy. Additionally, the monarch’s powers were limited, with ultimate power residing in the Parliament. More than a century later, when the United States formed, America’s founding fathers had a challenge-to establish a lasting democratic republic that would not degenerate into a dictatorship. Historically, republics have not lasted long.
The United States is the oldest democratic republic. This is an incredible accomplishment. It is amazing that no other country has been able to copy the American system of government successfully. It is as if that system is uniquely suited to that single country.
America has worked well-until recent months. The presidential election of November 2000 left the world bewildered, with people wondering whether the United States might be starting down the road of succession problems other nations frequently experience.
If this is to be the case, then political stability will be a casualty, and America’s economic progress will suffer, harming other nations as well as itself. If America is perceived as politically unstable, other nations will lose confidence in her. If the president is seen as lacking legitimacy, world leaders will find it more difficult to look to the president of the United States as the leader of the free world.
What the future holds
We need to understand that no man-made political system administered by fallible human beings is perfect. The British and U.S. systems have worked better for longer than any other political systems, but they are still man-made. Although some see divine favor behind their relative success, neither country comes close to the righteous leadership and promised peace and stability of the coming Kingdom of God.
Jesus Christ made it clear in John 18:36 John 18:36Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
American King James Version×that His “kingdom is not of this world.” His Kingdom isn’t based on political parties or platforms and policies that will appeal to the most supporters. His Kingdom, to be established at His return, will be a perfect one.
“Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end … to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever” (Isaiah 9:7 Isaiah 9:7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
American King James Version×). Government stability is promised “forever.”
Meanwhile, nations have to do their best to work out their own systems. On a human level the British and American systems have worked better than others and for longer periods. The two institutions on which their stability has been built, the British monarchy and the U.S. presidency, have endured a battering during the last decade, mostly thanks to scandals that could easily have been avoided. At the same time, the greater openness of recent decades has dissolved much of the awe and respect many once held for these institutions.
Further weakening of these institutions can be only a negative development for the American and British peoples. It is of utmost importance that the residents of the White House and Britain’s Buckingham Palace (along with No. 10 Downing Street) recognize the responsibility they have in contributing to the stability of the nations over which they preside.
When politicians squabble over who holds the supreme office, it is understandable that fears of American political instability abound at home and overseas. Political uncertainty is to be expected in some of the poorer, less politically stable nations. People do not expect to see the same in the richest nation in the world, a nation that has been politically sound longer than anybody can remember.
A nation divided
The recent election brought out how deeply divided America has become. In a November syndicated column, ABC-TV news correspondent Cokie Roberts and her husband, Steven, wrote: “As the election returns show, the voters are as divided as the politicians. Even though [Al] Gore and [George] Bush both ran as centrists, exit polls demonstrate they were appealing to two very different constituencies. Start with geography. The Democratic states are grouped mainly in three clusters: the Northeast, the upper Middle West and the Pacific coast. The rest is [Republican] country, with almost no regional overlap.
“Then there is race. Whites and nonwhites are living on different planets. Six in 10 Latinos voted Democratic nationwide, and so did nine of 10 blacks. Whites favored Bush by 12 points. Gender [sex] differences were almost as striking. Men voted Republican by 11 points; women favored the Democrats by the same margin. That figures out to a 22-point gender gap, the largest since exit pol-ling started and five points larger than the difference four years ago.”
Two thousand years ago Jesus warned that a “house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25 Matthew 12:25And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:
American King James Version×).
Other factors also cause concern. For a democratic system to work, the vast majority must be willing to play by the rules, to accept the result and unite behind whoever wins. This election will long be remembered as the first when the rules themselves were openly criticized and the results questioned and challenged. It remains to be seen whether the supporters of the losing candidate will unite behind the new president.
Many have expressed concern at the major role played by the news media and the legal profession in this election. The media announced predicted results, based on their own analyses, before polls had closed, thereby affecting voter turnout in some areas. After the election the close election result led to lawyers and courts playing a major role in determining the outcome, thereby setting precedents that may long influence future elections.
Whatever the consequences, it is obvious that the world has been jolted into a realization that America’s political stability cannot be taken for granted. This is something new for the United States and for her friends around the world-and for enemies who someday may take advantage of the new situation.
One thing is certain: American presidential elections have crossed an important threshold, and they-and possibly the country-will never be the same. GN