Protesters gather at the Town Square in Jackson, Wyoming, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022 to show solidarity with Ukraine as that country endures an invasion by Russian forces in eastern Europe. Several of the protesters were native Ukrainians with family in the country and sheltering from the Russian invasion. (AP Photo / Jackson Hole News&Guide, Bradly J. Boner)

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.

Opinion

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.

John F. Freeman

John F. Freeman is a longtime resident of Wyoming. He has a PhD in early modern European history from the University of Michigan, served as a community college dean and non-profit executive; and is the...

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  1. “Our sense of isolation…”?

    Give me a break. This country has waged numerous wars, all based on lies, around the world since the end of the second war on the world. And that, of course, does not include the death and destruction we inflicted, nationally (mainly against native peoples on this continent) and internationally, before that war began.

    Now we sit in high-handed judgement of the “bad guys” for finally taking action on NATO (US) buildups on the Russian border, buildups that have been going on for years. Remember the death and destruction we rained on the Middle East? Remember our invasion of Vietnam, of Korea, of mighty Grenada, and on, and on?

    What do you suppose would have happened had the Mexican government given the green light to Russia for positioning missiles and stationing troops along the US southern border? I think you can guess that one pretty easily. There would immediately have been death and destruction rained on Mexico.

    I suggest that people use their brains rather than their emotions when it comes to the current situation in eastern Europe. War is horrifying no matter where it happens, or for what reason. But, for the US to assume it rides the high horse when it condemns Russia is purely disgusting, and two-faced.

  2. Yes, voting and voter education must happen to save our democracy. even here in Wyoming. I know some are giving up on electoral politics, but what’s the alternative? I don’t even want to think about that. Also, we need people to run for office and for others to volunteer to help those they want to see get elected.

  3. Sympathy for the innocent victims of war. Of course, Putin is a thug. Backed into a corner by NATO which has been attempting to include (is annex too strong a term?) another former Warsaw Pact nation into its portfolio, he’s pushing back; and it’s criminal and awful.
    But, follow the money. The U. S. has forced the mothballing of German-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline which would serve much of Europe with relatively cheap natural gas. What a boon to LNG producers in the U. S. whose cryogenic transports are gearing up to sell much more expensive (but surplus) fracked gas to Europe. And, of course, rising gasoline prices, which Dr. Freeman says Americans will bear (for a while) in solidarity with the Ukrainian people–that brings a smile to the faces U. S.’s murderous friends in Saudi regime.
    It wasn’t that long ago that some of the folks lamenting Putin’s indignities in the Ukraine bought lock, stock, and barrel the phony WMD intelligence which Bush, Cheney, and Powell offered to open up with “shock and awe” a war against Iraq.
    If democracy is on the docket when profits and markets are at stake, just as in a bankruptcy procedure, every vested interest gets its cut first. Democracy takes the hindmost.
    Have a nice day.

  4. I agree completely, John. Too many of us have become complacent and don’t participate in civic institutions. This is an opportunity, as we witness the attempt to destroy democracy in Ukraine, to volunteer and help preserve our own communities.

  5. Outstanding column! When I retired from the USAF some years ago, I had a few words to say at my retirement ceremony about some concerns I had about the unit I was leaving. Following the ceremony, a CMS came over and said he appreciated my words, and then said, “if only people would listen.” I hope Mr. Freeman and those with the same message are given the attention they deserve soon, before we lose the democracy so many have sacrificed to preserve.

  6. Excellent, John. I totally agree with what you propose and wish it could happen. We Americans need to realize how fragile our freedoms are. My heart goes out to the Ukrainian people.

  7. Freedom of speech is a critical right. You can not yell out fire in a theater. But you can openly support a foreign power that is a foe of our country and a threat to our Republic. From 2016 to present day, Fox News has supported the Russians onslaught on democracies around the world. Tucker Carlson has made trips tp Belarus to visit the dictator and praising him. Where is the line between free speech and treason? Fox News has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It would seem very relevant to see where Tucker’s money is coming from! As well as the Murdoch family!