WASHINGTON -- "Isn't it pretty to think so?" Those concluding words of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," a novel of postwar disillusion, became a generation's verbal shrug, expressing weary melancholy after a war waged to make the world safe for democracy. Eighty years on, there of course remain reasons for wondering whether Iraq's stride toward popular sovereignty will lead to a durable and admirable democracy. But it is a humbling privilege for the rest of us to share the planet with the defiant Iraqis who campaigned and voted, and the coalition's superb warriors who made voting possible.
Democracy is more than a mechanism for picking leaders; it is institutions of pluralism, and attitudes of majority forbearance and minority acceptance. But democracy is a mechanism for selecting leaders. Can the leaders selected on Sunday -- who must choose by a two-thirds vote a three-person Presidential Council, then write a constitution under which there will be another election for new leaders, all by December -- lead toward a secular state respectful of civil liberties?
If the government generated on Sunday cannot produce ample security -- and electricity -- it will be evanescent. To forestall majority tyranny, the new assembly will reflect proportional representation to a degree that would test the coalition-building skills of a mature parliamentary system: Any party with even 1/275th of the vote gets one of the 275 assembly seats. Two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces can veto the constitution, which means the Kurds or Sunnis could.
In which case, Iraq will be back to square one. But where exactly is that?
As a communal moment, Sunday's elections should fuel Iraqi nationalism. Largely because of a misunderstanding of Hitler -- a racist, not a nationalist; he supplanted national symbols with party symbols -- nationalism has acquired a bad reputation. But nationalism -- a civic identity organized around shared history and commemorated on sacred days, such as Jan. 30 -- can trump sectarian differences, and fuse where they fracture.
Days before the voting, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the terrorist, and Edward Kennedy, the senator, contributed to Americans' understanding of the struggle in Iraq -- Zarqawi by his clarity, Kennedy by his confusion. In a speech intellectually disheveled and morally obtuse, Kennedy said, "Our military and the insurgents are fighting for the same thing -- the hearts and minds of the people." His weird idea is that while the coalition struggles to persuade Iraqis to try democracy, with its compromises and vicissitudes, the insurgents are trying to persuade Iraqis to embrace a rival idea of social organization. Actually, the two significant factions of insurgents, who have the totalitarians' characteristic penchant for candor, do not even pretend to value consent achieved by persuasion.
One group, the former Baathist regime elements, aims only to return to their totalitarian vocation, as George Orwell understood it: "a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." These elements know that only intimidation by the vilest violence can serve them. Imagining them, as Kennedy does, as campaigners for a rival doctrine is, well, weird.
The other insurgents, those with radical Islam's agenda, reject modernity root and branch, and so reject the idea that governments derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Twentieth-century totalitarians -- fascists and communists -- felt constrained to bow toward popular sovereignty with plebiscitary forms. Not Zarqawi, who says democracy is an "evil principle" and "heresy itself" because the will of the governed supplants God's will. For radical Islam, the public's mind deserves not respect but a religious scrubbing.
Forty years ago Kennedy suffered a continuing brain cramp. He and an aging but vocal portion of his party have no prism to see through and no vocabulary to speak with other than Vietnam. Hence they see the Iraqi insurgents as another iteration of the Viet Cong. But the Viet Cong had a marketable model for organizing the modern world. Marxism -- "scientific socialism" -- is today as vanished as a pricked bubble, but when Ho Chi Minh was in Paris, it was considered the last word in modernity, and found a mass market. Zarqawi's "program" is a howl of rage against modernity, promising only different boots -- clerical ones -- on the same faces.
Americans are understandably weary of hearing, "Now comes the really hard part." But those who said that after Baghdad fell 22 months ago were right, and those who say it after Sunday might be.
Washington Post Writers Group