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Letter From Tunis: Time to Repair a System That Has Become Ridiculous

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TUNIS, Tunisia -- A year ago, not far from where I sit writing this, a massive group of protesters forced from power a dictator who controlled their lives for 23 years.

The overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sparked a wave of anti-authoritarian uprisings unlike the world had ever seen: Egypt, Libya, Yemen and now Syria.

Over the past two weeks, as part of my work with Mercy Corps, I have been lucky enough to meet some of the people behind the changes in Egypt and Tunisia, and I have two reactions.

The first reaction is deep admiration. The courage people have shown is stunning. Going to Tahrir Square in January 2011 meant accepting a very real possibility that you might be arrested, beaten, injured or killed. One Egyptian activist told us how he said goodbye to his young children at night before heading out to Tahrir, warning that they might not see him again. It's hard for me to imagine what would drive me to take that kind of risk, and yet thousands of people stayed in Tahrir until Hosni Mubarak was gone for good. Now that activist works in Parliament.

My second reaction is shame. Watching the 2012 campaign unfold from a distance, it is clear to me that the American political system has become ridiculous at a time when we really need it to work. Our system has become ridiculous because we have let it, because many of us -- myself included -- have come to take for granted a set of political rights and responsibilities that people here in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region are willing to die for.

We Americans have lapsed into disgraceful complacency, allowing super PACs, talk-radio hosts and a hysterical 24-hour news culture to control the way we govern ourselves. Government has become a zero-sum game that rarely rewards moderation and compromise.

In a December 2011 Gallup poll, 86 percent of Americans disapproved of the job Congress is doing -- the worst since Gallup started asking 30 years ago. And yet fewer than five percent of Congressional seats are really competitive in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Cook Report.

In presidential election years, just over half of all voting-age adults actually turn out to vote. In the off-year elections that choose every U.S. House member, a third of U.S. senators, a dozen or so governors and countless state legislators, a little more than a third of voting-age adults take the time to cast a ballot. More Americans log on to Facebook in any given month than bother to vote in any major election.

We Americans like to think we are modeling democracy for the rest of the world. But next to the brave protesters of the Arab Spring, most of us look lazy and spoiled.

The Arab Spring movements have their flaws. They have venal politicians, rigid ideologues and apathetic voter segments of their own. But everyone I talked to was proud and hopeful. "Now, if the government we elect doesn't do what we want," a young Tunisian lawyer told me with a wide smile, "we can just vote them out."

Future generations of Egyptians and Tunisians will see the leaders of their 2011 revolts as founding fathers and mothers. And yet for all of the idolatry American politicians demonstrate for Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, do we really think we are living up to the ideals of the American Founding Fathers?

"That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part," Jefferson wrote. Tunisians feel part of their government; they seized that right and are holding on tight. A young guy in the town of Tataouine told me if they felt the ideals of the revolution were being ignored, they would go right back out on the streets. If polling and voter turnout numbers mean anything, few Americans feel part of the government and that needs to change.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville has a sharp and relevant observation on our democracy, and it makes me hopeful:

"The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

If we want to live up to the vision of our founders and be the great country we aspire to be, we Americans need to learn from the Arab Spring, repair our faults and take back ownership of our system.

Jeremy Barnicle is the chief development officer and chief communications officer at Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organization. He ran a successful Congressional campaign, served as legislative assistant to a member of Congress, and worked as a political and public affairs consultant. The opinions expressed in this essay are his own.

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