By Fareed Zakaria
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
It is the defining moment of a democracy – when an outgoing leader celebrates the election of a new one, from the opposing party. Think of George H.W. Bush welcoming Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter doing the same for Ronald Reagan. Across the world, this is the acid test of a genuine democracy. Mexicans will tell you that they knew that had gotten there when their President, Ernesto Zedillo, after seven decades of one-party rule, allowed free elections and stood with the newly elected successor and affirmed his legitimacy.
The basic and powerful idea behind this ritual is that in a democracy, the process is more important than the outcome. If a genuine democratic process has been followed, we have to accept the results, regardless of how much we dislike them. The ultimate example of this in recent American history might be Al Gore's elegant acceptance of the process – complicated, politicized, but utterly constitutional – that put George W Bush in the White House. It must also have been very difficult for Richard Nixon to report the results of the 1960 election – which John F Kennedy won by a razor thin margin and was marred by voter fraud – but he did. However much you dislike the outcome, you respect the democratic process.
I would have been happy to see President Obama compromise on the budget, taxes, spending, even Obamacare. But he cannot compromise on the principal that the rules of democracy must be respected, whatever the outcome. If Democrats had threatened to shut down the government or default on the debt to force the repeal of the Bush tax cuts or defund the Iraq War, I would have hoped President George Bush would also have been uncompromising.
America's power and influence abroad derive in large measure from the strength of American democracy. If American politicians start playing fast and loose with the rules, doing whatever it takes to get the results that they want, what does that say to people in Russia, Egypt, Iran, and Venezuela who get pious lectures on the rules of democracy from Americans. It tells them that something is deeply rotten with the American system right now.
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