Surely our sense of isolation from the rest of the world has not blinded us from admiring the tremendous courage and genuine patriotism of the Ukrainian people and their elected leaders. It’s a timely reminder that participatory democracy is fragile, requiring continuous cultivation and personal sacrifice. We are limited in how we can assist the Ukrainians in conserving their self governance, but we can do a lot to protect and preserve democracy here at home.
Being students of history, our nation’s founders understood perfectly well that fear drives much human behavior, causing people to act in nasty and brutish ways toward each other and enabling tyrants of various ilk to exploit human frailty for their own personal advantage — all under the guise of bringing about order. Against that backdrop, the founders established the Constitution as the “guardrails” to protect the truly unprecedented experiment in self-government, putting the common good over personal advantage and enabling the fledgling nation to start working toward a more perfect union. So far, the guardrails have held.
Being eminently practical, and ever close to the land, the founders understood that, like farming, self-government depends upon continuous cultivation of the citizenry. Otherwise, democracy decays, leaving rabble-rousers to exploit our anxieties as they promise order in exchange for liberties. In truth, strongmen must create and promote chaos to survive. Which is why our grandparents and great-grandparents — part of the “Greatest Generation” that served under the Allied Command in World War II — realized that our own democracy could not be safe until democracy took hold in the defeated nations. Thus, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the post-war economic miracle was so stunningly successful that we became spoiled. We took for granted that the fruits of democracy no longer needed cultivation — at least not by us.
Our complacency became so complete that, starting in the late 1960s, political leaders increasingly catered to consumerism and selfishness, conveniently ignoring that by nature we depend upon one another to survive and thrive. Consistent with the shift from “we” to “me,” recent polls had noted that most Americans appeared unwilling “to pay any price in defense of liberty.” Most worrisome has been the decades-long decline of participation in civic institutions: in churches and colleges that teach values and ethics; newspapers and magazines that keep us informed and our politicians honest; voluntary associations that nurture communities; and the military branches that put our values into practice.
If there is any consoling aspect to the horrors in Ukraine, it is that now more than two-thirds of Americans (no difference between Democrats and Republicans) polled voluntarily accept temporarily higher fuel prices. Perhaps, too, the existential threat to democracy will respark the public debate over requiring each able young American to perform some form of community or national service, military or otherwise. Meanwhile, we have the power through our elected school boards to require at least some public service as a prerequisite for graduation. We can also persuade our colleges to re-institute basic requirements in the literary and historical disciplines that teach about human virtues and vices, about the value of altruism and the price of complacency.
Another consoling aspect: Though legitimately frightened by Putin’s invasion, Wyoming youths are suddenly becoming aware of the struggle between democracy and autocracy, and what’s at stake. Perhaps they are also growing sensitive to the imperfections within our own society and wanting to do something constructive. Now is the time for those of us versed in earlier civic ventures to share with young people both our idealism and our skills.
I’ve become convinced that our single most important task is to support community-by-community organizing to get more people to vote. In recent elections, only about one-third of all voting-age residents voted in the primaries, which generally determine legislative and statewide races. Happily, two fledgling nonpartisan efforts — center-right WY Vote, and center-left Better Wyoming, are organizing to expand the electorate (disclosure: I contribute to both).
The best way we in Wyoming can honor Ukraine’s cause and lift our own spirits is to abandon our indifference to self-governing and become engaged citizens.