Our military deserves thanks on July 4 — but politicians, press and civilians? Not so much

Our military deserves thanks on July 4 — but politicians, press and civilians? Not so much
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Honoring the commitment, sacrifice and courage of our all-volunteer military, especially on the Fourth of July, should never be considered controversial or divisive. The U.S. military pledges its loyalty to the U.S. Constitution based on the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truths” that all men are created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The military’s participation in this year’s celebrations is an important reminder to all Americans that our freedoms are being protected by less than 1 percent of our population. 

But we fail our volunteer military, and our fallen heroes, if we think parades, laudatory presidential speeches and just saying “Thank you for preserving our freedoms” is enough. Our leaders and the 99.5 percent of Americans who do not serve in uniform owe it to those who do to fulfill our democratic responsibilities – our part of the democratic social contract — to uphold and continue to strengthen our democracy, its institutions and its foundational principles of honoring human rights. 

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The U.S. military is upholding its end of that contract, with unquestioning courage, to secure and defend our freedoms. But Americans — civilian leaders and citizens alike — are failing to uphold their end of the bargain. 

The American military continues to fight in the longest wars in our history, and continues to deter and defend against threats to our interests and security worldwide. Yet, at home, our politics and democratic institutions have become divisive, hyper-partisan and dysfunctional. 

The U.S. military remains at the top of the institutions in which Americans have confidence and trust, while the executive branch, Congress and the press are at the bottom. Public trust in government is at historic lows, according to Pew Research, with only 17 percent of Americans today who say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right either “always” or “most of time.” The president, members of Congress and the press, the central pillars of our democracy, are clearly failing in their leadership responsibilities.

The strength of democracy is built, first and foremost, on the right and responsibility of each individual citizen to vote. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew the high price of freedom and the vital importance of fighting for it, said: "The future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter." 

Only 60 percent of Americans have voted in the last two presidential elections, with just 49 percent of millennials turning out in 2016. And, while the 2018 midterm elections had record voter turnout, it still was only 40 percent of the voting population. The most important way to say “thank you” to our volunteer military is to vote. 

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The right to vote also comes with the responsibility to be informed. That has only become more difficult as the press, in large part, has retreated to its corners of the political arena and social media giants continue to fall short in their efforts to control fake content from their platforms. While many Americans – 68 percent, according to Pew Research – say that made-up news and information greatly affects American confidence in government and institutions, Americans at the same time seem to have become unwilling or unable to listen to one another—another key pillar of a sound democracy. According to Pew Research, many Americans find their own conversations about politics have become stressful experiences that they prefer to avoid. 

The issue this Fourth of July is not whether the military should be part of the celebration of our nation’s independence and values of freedom. Their mission is to deter and defend those freedoms, and their pledge is to defend the Constitution. The issue is whether we, the 99.5 percent on the civilian side, are doing enough, as leaders and as citizens, to fulfill our obligations to preserve and strengthen our democracy.  

If we really want to say “thank you” to our military service members, we need to fulfill our part of the social contract to strengthen, not weaken, our democracy, from the grassroots up and from our highest leadership down.

Lori Esposito Murray is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She previously held the national security chair at the U.S. Naval Academy and is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, as well as president emeritus of the World Affairs Councils of America.