It’s Freedom, Stupid!

Democracy is simultaneously overrated and under-appreciated. Freedom is taken for granted, but often misunderstood and easily lost. We need to be vigilant so as to protect both.

President George W. Bush thought that the Iraqis might like to have a democracy to fill the vacuum left from the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his ruthless and brutal autocracy. Estimates range quite a bit on the financial cost of our war in Iraq, but all agree the total is somewhere in the trillions of dollars. And, Bush's dream of establishing an enticing example of what Arab democracy could look like was left in tatters. Not even the brief promise of the Arab Spring found much to emulate from the American experiment in Iraq.

Afghanistan is a similar story. If anything, America’s commitment to establishing a decent form of governance there exceeded the effort in Iraq. Not only was the financial investment at a level also measured in the trillions, but there are countless stories of extraordinary efforts on the part of American service people to leave the Afghans a country not controlled by thugs and zealots, all of whom seek power by imposing their beliefs and “rules” on their fellow citizens. Despite mammoth amounts of money and effort, the civilian Afghan government left behind fell in mere days after the American military left.

The human toll was incalculably higher. Thousands of troop deaths from action have been recorded along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. Post-war troop suicide numbers are multiple times those lost in combat. The mental toll of veterans is absolutely staggering and reflects clearly one of the most profound costs of war.

Despite all that cost and all that suffering, the Arab world rejected American style democracy out of hand.

Not that they’re alone. Western democracies are in trouble from Eastern Europe to right here at home in the United States. The poster child for leading the attack against democracy is Viktor Orbán of Hungary. As he takes many of his “leadership” cues from Vladimir Putin and moves his country further and further away from democracy (arguable “all the way” at this point), he has simultaneously found fans among American conservatives who, similarly, seem intent on moving their country further away from democracy. We all watched the insurrection of January 6 on television and, yet, there are those among the American right who proclaim it to be something other than an attempt to overthrow our government and our system of governance. Some who do see it as an insurrection see it as one that was justified, despite there being no defensible evidence to support their stated grievances.

I know for sure what I saw. And, I have yet to see even a shred of evidence to suggest that there were anything but the most insignificant of election irregularities. Any grievance must be supported by evidence. Any grievance justifying insurrection must be accompanied by the strongest of overwhelming evidence. None, to date, has been produced that rises to that level.

The fact that people like Orbán can find strong support in both Hungary and Texas does indeed suggest that something in fundamentally wrong in some of the world’s democracies.

This, to my mind, is not entirely unnatural. Winston Churchill famously declared that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the other forms.” And, why shouldn’t it be the worst? With underlying concepts such as “all men are created equal” and “equal protection of the laws,” democracy is necessarily going to be messy. People have never been great at treating each other equitably. Democracy, therefore, is easily challenged by basic human nature. Things are not going to run smoothly all of the time.

What makes democracy the best form of governance is the same thing that make it so difficult. Fundamentally, democracies are rooted in protecting the liberty of the people. Ideally, all the people—if anybody’s liberty is impinged, then everyone’s liberty is at risk. Not easy at all to pull off. Nearly 250 years after the Declaration of Independence, we’re still working on it.

There is plenty to criticize about our democracy. But, democracy is a tool. What really matters is freedom. Liberty, damn it, is the goal! And, despite all of our problems and our imperfections, it is our promise of freedom and liberty that makes America the place that most oppressed people from around the globe seek to make their home, even today. And, this is deserved. Despite notable failings, the degree of openness granted to different peoples is historically astounding. We have proven that people with differences can live peaceably together. This must never be lost.

It has always astounded me that the Bill of Rights are amendments to our Constitution. For me, they should have come before anything of the language of how our government was to be structured. At the very least, the First Amendment, which prohibits government from interfering in a person’s choice of religion, their right to speak their mind freely, or their right to assemble peacefully and make petitions of their own government should have been the foundation of our entire Constitution. Everything else should support the protection of this fundamental and natural right.

More than anything else, this is what I believe Americans to have fought and died to protect.

It took the Fourteenth Amendment to clarify and codify that this, and all other rights, belong to us all equally. This should have been obvious from the start, but, as I said earlier, people often struggle with treating each other fairly.

One of the early tenets of early “American” thinking we appear to have lost is the notion that our rights carry a reciprocal expectation. A basic belief of the Founders and early Americans was that every right bestowed upon us is balanced by a corresponding responsibility. I have become convinced that while some “rights” are natural and universal, balancing them with an expectation of responsibility is a necessary component of any stable society.

Thus, to me, the price of one’s freedom is respect for others.

And, this respect (and the expectation thereof) is missing dearly in today’s America (and, clearly, large swaths of the rest of the world, too). Simply, we have forgotten how to treat each other with decency and mutual respect.

So, democracy is but a tool, albeit a very significant tool. None of us live our lives in isolation. If we did, freedom would be whatever we define it to be and that would be just fine. But, we live amongst each other and nobody agrees with everything another believes. Sometimes, it seems, we share nothing in common, though that is patently untrue. Thus, government becomes the mechanism that enables us to live together and share our world so that we maximize the degree to which your freedom doesn’t impinge mine and vice versa. Democracy is the best way to do this so that our basic freedoms are protected. But, maintenance of those basic freedoms represent our true aim. And, preserving and improving our democracy is the best was to meet that goal.

We must never forget from where this country came. It was literally built over hundreds of years by people who had been oppressed in their native countries. Originally, the oppression was virtually entirely religious, but subsequent immigrants were also escaping economic oppression.

The Founders created our democracy with the explicit goal of preventing the accumulation of excessive power as such acquisitions virtually always lead to tyranny and the loss of individual freedoms. And, since the majority of people desire and value deeply their freedoms, those who seek great power will willingly use fear, intimidation, and violence to acquire and maintain power. These people are well known to history and while some start benevolently, they consistently come to be oppressors. Orbán is a classic example. Putin was probably always an oppressor, but was wily enough to fool people when he first appeared on the world stage.

America is slipping into an abyss, largely on the basis of untruths and the propaganda of unscrupulous power-seekers, and it needs to reverse its course quickly. People are talking about our losing our democracy, but it’s our freedom that we should most fear losing and protect with every defense we can muster. Our democracy is flawed, but basically sound and eminently fixable. Freedom, once lost, takes decades (or longer) to recover. And, those who utilize lies and then invoke violence to “protect your freedom” while taking it from others will, if not stopped, continue until freedom is a “privilege” for just themselves and their own “elite circle.” Regular people always lose when autocrats win. Leaders like Orbán and Putin are not examples in any sense. They are stark warnings to all free people. Americans must look critically and closely at themselves today, carefully examine presented evidence of wrongdoing by leaders, be critical in their thinking about things they don’t experience personally but see and hear in any form of media, and then choose their actions wisely lest our future turn very dark.