High School Civics or Conversations with Taxi Drivers

“Where are you from?” Taxi drivers never fail to ask as you hop into their car. And the question would never fail to be followed by “And what are you doing in Tunisia? Tourism?” and after a look in the mirror, a welcoming smile: “Do you like Tunisia?”

From Tunisia 2011

But since January 14, these conversations now include the follow-up question, “What kind of political system do you have in the US, presidential or parliamentarian?” or “which do you think is the best political system? I mean in an ideal world, what would it be?”

The recent decision by the Tunisian government to delay the election of the constituent assembly (to replace the interim government and form a new constitution) ensures that I will have at least 4 more months of fascinating discussions with taxi drivers, shoe shiners, friends and neighbors about the best system of representative government, conversations that usually have me trying to think back to 10th grade American history classes and what exactly John Stuart Mill meant in On Liberty.

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January, one of the fundamental questions for Tunisians has been whether they should continue with the presidential model of government, choose a parliamentary system, or some sort of mix between the two.

While certain political questions remain very sensitive (the role of women or religion, for example), and thus not entirely open for discussion, the system of government is a question that is openly debated in cafes, on the “drive time” call in shows, and in just about every conversation I’ve had with Tunisians over the last 6 months.

On more than one occasion I’ve been told that all Tunisians want is some sort of alternation in power. The fact that Ben Ali hung on for 23 years is the biggest  problem many Tunisians, especially those who prospered under the regime, seem to have. This led to an unnecessarily abusive and corrupt system.

What is interesting, and surprising for me, given Western perceptions about the Arab Spring, is that so much of the hopes of Tunisians is based on the system of government, rather than the ideology of the government. Many people believe that having the proper structure and constitution – along with accountability and competence – will lead to the best outcomes for the country, regardless of the beliefs of any political party in charge.

In this respect, the debate here is often more along the lines of political theorists, like Locke or Rousseau describing the social contract, than it is about freedom, liberty or expression. This academic perspective in turn perpetuates debates that exclude the hard issues – such as what role women or religion have to play in society.

As I reflect on this, and my 10th grade history lessons, I realize that these were probably the same debates that allowed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The hard issues, such as the role of the federal government or the institution of slavery, were fudged or left for later, and difficult compromises were made. And while leaving these issues for later had serious consequences, it allowed the nation to coalesce around the common values of democracy, basic civil rights (if not for everyone), and above all, the rule of law.

As Tunisians continue their national public debate, and as various political parties try to steer the conversation in one direction or another, I will be looking to see if these debate ground rules hold, or if they will be high-jacked. In either case, the taxi cab civics debate will continue….