By Chris Walsh
American democracy is a good thing, but it’s not a fairy tale. That’s because people are flawed and prone to flirting with their darkest impulses. Any system of government will always reflect that struggle. Even the best ones.
As our nation celebrates the Fourth of July, the George W. Bush Presidential Museum’s ”Freedom Matters” exhibit offers engaging ways to explore that interplay of human nature, freedom and government. Through compelling artifacts and stories, visitors are immersed in the philosophical foundations of freedom and how different governments protect or deny liberty.
While the exhibit isn’t exhaustive, it offers Americans an important perspective on their country’s experiences with freedom and democracy — both good and bad. History reminds us that democratic ideals and aspirations coexist with the realities of human nature, and those two things often don’t align the way we wish.
People strive to live out noble ideals while their innate weaknesses cause them to fail periodically, even often. It’s frustrating having to reconcile the inevitability of hypocrisy with efforts to foster a more perfect union. However, we shouldn’t be resigned to a particular fate or complacent in the face of injustice. Liberal democracy — through accountability, transparency, limited power and individual rights — is the best system for navigating our aspirations and frailties.
The United States has seen this tension play out within the last century. Women finally achieved universal suffrage. But as the United States battled the totalitarian Axis powers, we placed Japanese Americans in internment camps because of their ethnicity. Over 40 years, Japanese Americans used the values and institutions of the country that wronged them to gain restitution.
Following the Civil War, Black Americans were still legally segregated and terrorized across several states. In response to that injustice, prominent Black leaders and their allies employed the principles of America’s founding documents through the civil rights movement, helping end Jim Crow laws and pushing the nation toward greater equality.
While “Freedom Matters” captures these episodes (and others) from our country’s history, the center of the gallery on American democracy showcases an 1831 print of the Declaration of Independence. This importantly illustrates that, while democracy doesn’t always progress in a linear path, the framework for recognizing inherent human dignity, protecting freedom and maintaining social peace lies at its core.
Our founding documents provide Americans the space — particularly through the Constitution’s amendment process — and moral clarity to strive toward a more perfect union.
With its steps backward, sideways and forward, it’s easy to get frustrated with democracy. It can be a messy and slow-moving system by design. However, we risk overlooking its most miraculous benefits because they’ve become mundane.
Generally, people of myriad backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyles can live as they wish. We enjoy broad political stability and the peaceful transfer of power from one government to the next. Local and national leaders alike have limited power and are accountable to the people through regular elections. There’s space to peacefully express and debate different ideas. We enjoy the rule of law and due process that allow all people to pursue justice without violence.
We’re fortunate to live in a free society that’s become better since its founding, particularly when you consider the exercise of arbitrary power to oppress people throughout human history, and still rampant in the world today. While there will always be work to do, we arguably live in a time when more Americans enjoy the benefits of liberty than at any other point in our nation’s story.
That, however, doesn’t negate our challenges. In fact, if we want to maintain a free society, it’s important to understand that the journey never ends. While our human frailties make “perfect” an unreachable destination, that’s not an excuse to be complacent or abandon hope. We accept our flawed nature (which is always reason to give grace to fellow Americans with whom we disagree) and continue the perpetual obligation of striving toward a more perfect union as a baton that is passed to each ensuing generation.
It’s the duty of every American who values liberty to remain committed to human dignity, individual liberty, pluralism and the responsibilities of citizenship. These obligations are at the core of those incredible artifacts that led to the birth and growth of our nation. May they forever remind us of our commitment to a more perfect union.
Chris Walsh is director of Freedom and Democracy at the George W. Bush Institute. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.