“Freedom,” President Ronald Reagan said, “is a fragile thing, and it's never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.”
These are words worthy of our collective rumination as our republic and time-tested institutions stand strained like never before.
In the past year, we have witnessed the once-unthinkable. Governors across the country unilaterally and indefinitely constrained core rights — all without a peep of input from the people’s duly-elected legislative representatives. A mob incensed by lies and vitriol from an unhinged president of the United States stormed the Capitol and successfully stalled the peaceful transition of executive power. And our national debt, with little notice, has grown beyond the size of the country’s entire annual gross domestic product, a dangerous fiscal threshold that threatens American solvency for the first time in history.
Self-rule requires societal self-assessment. An honest reflection on the worrying political state of things today reveals we must do better — and soon — for American democracy to continue and thrive.
Freedom in the United States has before, of course, had its foes. The Confederacy, Nazi Germany, Jim Crow, communism, and al Qaeda, to name a few, all sought to destroy the fulfillment of the promises of the Declaration of Independence.
Today, a stealthier enemy of self-government has emerged: civic lethargy. Some of us seem to believe that good government is a birthright and a brighter, more prosperous future an American inevitability. But that is not so.
The destiny of free peoples is dependent on how well we conduct our civic duties and who we elect as leaders.
Democracy is not easy work and demands much from us who enjoy it. It obliges us to treat those with different views with respect and honor our neighbors who do not look like us, worship the same God, or share our partisan affiliation. It compels citizens to actively participate in public life and devote a large amount of time and thought to processing unfamiliar data and exercising prudence to discriminate the good from the bad and the true from the false.
Democracy requires reflection, rigor, and reason. It calls us to be calm, attentive, and courteous. To keep our republic, we need to reconsider how we perform our fundamental roles in it.
We must reassess how we elect our leaders. We the people choose our representatives, so the responsibility sits with us for the remarkable lack of courage and productivity in the public arena today. We have too many dishonest, inept, cowardly, and inconsistent politicians because we have abandoned character, bravery, competency, and principle as key electoral requirements.
While bipartisan compromise was once applauded as an important political virtue, today both party bases consider it an unholy vice worthy of partisan excommunication. And so, lawmaking has become a zero-sum game, whereby the ruling party pushes as much of its agenda as it possibly can before the next election, when voters, usually turned off by the extremism, transfer power to the minority coalition to undo it, and the unproductive cycle starts again. We saw this under both presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and we see it today with President Joe Biden — and strikingly so.
Civic discourse is the lifeblood of democracy, and Americans must learn how to engage in it once again. Politics has always been tough, but the extreme intolerance from both the right and left is unsustainable. Americans cannot have productive elections without fulsome and respectful debate and an openness to a diversity of ideas and opinions.
On the left, the Democratic Party has disgracefully weaponized the issue of racism. Even a legitimate and contemplative objection to their initiatives is often met with an accusation of bigotry to destroy dissent. The real problem of racial prejudice in the United States deserves careful and sober debate and is far too serious a thing to be used as a political blowtorch.
And on the right, Republicans have become too comfortable with conspiracy theories and dishonesty.
We cannot have national conversations unless both governing parties are beholden to facts and abandon political fiction.
With the perspective of world history, one can humbly appreciate that democracy has not been the form of government enjoyed by most peoples. Tyranny has.
We Americans are blessed to have inherited the greatest nation the world has ever known — and one we can make even better. But we cannot do that if we continue to treat the political process as a spectator blood sport. Instead, we each must recommit ourselves to the serious work required of us in an operative democracy, listen to and respect our political opponents more, and elect honorable men and women of character and courage who we entrust and empower to do what is right.
Andy Brehm of St. Paul is a corporate attorney and former press secretary to Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. He wrote this for the News Tribune.