Conditions were horrible when Salvadorans went to the polls on March 28, 1982.
The country was in the midst of a civil war that would take 75,000 lives. An insurgent army controlled about a third of the nation's territory. Just before election day, the insurgents stepped up their terror campaign. They attacked the National Palace, staged highway assaults that cut the nation in two and blew up schools that were to be polling places.
Yet voters came out in the hundreds of thousands. In some towns, they had to duck beneath sniper fire to get to the polls.
In San Salvador, a bomb went off near a line of people waiting outside a polling station. The people scattered, then the line reformed. "This nation may be falling apart," one voter told The Christian Science Monitor, "but by voting we may help to hold it together. . . .
The elections achieved something else: They undermined the insurgency. El Salvador wasn't transformed overnight.
But with each succeeding election into the early 90's, the rebels on the left and the death squads on the right grew weaker, and finally peace was achieved, and the entire hemisphere felt the effects.
As we saw in El Salvador and as Iraqi insurgents understand, elections suck the oxygen from a rebel army.
They refute the claim that violence is the best way to change things. Moreover, they produce democratic leaders who are much better equipped to win an insurgency war.
Of course the situation in El Salvador is not easily comparable to the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq.
On the other hand, over the past 30-odd years, democracy has spread at the rate of one and a half nations per year. It has spread among violence-racked nations and to 18 that are desperately poor. And it has spread not only because it inspires, but also because it works.
It's simply astounding that in the United States, the home of the greatest and most effective democratic revolution,
so many people have come to regard democracy as a luxury-brand vehicle, suited only for the culturally upscale, when it's really a sturdy truck,
effective in conditions both rough and smooth.