The current confrontation in Central America reminds us of the limited success the United States has had in understanding development and in dealing with political change in the third world. Expertise clearly exists within the US government and in the academic community. Yet top political leadership tends to reflect narrow perspectives that are common throughout American society.
Two misconceptions have been most influential in coloring our point of view: (1) ''development is easy''; and (2) ''elections create political legitimacy.''
The view that ''development is easy'' partly reflects the comparative advantages inherent to the US, such as the country's very productive land, and the fact that immigrants left traditional social patterns behind in their countries of origin. The revolutions of other continents were not needed here to unleash productive capabilities.
Americans tend to forget about the difficult aspects of development: Many of the most challenging periods in American history are glossed over in history books, in movies, and on television. Development in the US has not been all that easy, but the perception of many Americans is that with a little hard work any developing country could easily match US achievements.
Elections are part of the process of political development. Economic development sometimes helps in establishing political institutions, but it can also be quite disruptive to the political process. In addition, political development actually involves a series of crises, including problems of national identity, integration, and mobilization of the voters. Central to all these problems frequently has been the establishment and maintenance of political legitimacy - the right to rule.
Today, in the US, elections provide this function, although this was not always the case. In the colonial period, for instance, monarchy provided social cement and a continuity of leadership.
What is missing in Central America today? Certainly development has not been easy, despite US aid to El Salvador and Soviet aid to Nicaragua. Aid can only help reduce the cost and the difficulties associated with development. It cannot substitute completely for what will be the Central American equivalents of the US Revolution, Civil War, westward expansion, civil rights movement, Supreme Court decisions, and so forth.
Elections potentially provide a significant mechanism in establishing legitimacy. Given past history, the fact of the recent Salvadorean elections and those promised by the Sandinistas for Nicaragua are giant steps in the right direction. The honesty and deeper political meaning of these events will require serious scrutiny. The most fundamental issue, however, is political process.
In this respect, the debate in the US has missed the mark. One side states that the problem is outside intervention, the other stresses poverty and human rights violations as root causes. The Kissinger commission mentioned both. Yet enough attention has not been given to the political process within the countries. When large groups of the population have been excluded from the political process one or two elections will not convince them that their input now can make a difference. For them to ''play by the rules'' they must see that those in power will provide a free environment to express divergent opinions, access to influential circles, and a fair chance of taking power in the future.
These processes involve more than elections. If there are elections, what it takes to win and what happens when one loses must be considered. The critical issue remains: Do the people respect the processes of the political system as legitimate? The perception of legitimacy - the reasons the processes are viewed as fair or correct - hold a society together making anti-system violence unacceptable to most citizens and government repression unnecessary. Success in relating to Central American political change by the US will depend in great measure on the degree to which Americans better appreciate the sources of political legitimacy.