America should cultivate democracy at home as it does abroad

America should cultivate democracy at home as it does abroad
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Pandemic. Injustice. Economic destruction. We are living in trying times that are testing every aspect of our democracy and many of our core beliefs. We’ve watched our leaders struggle to safeguard us from sickness, protect us from injustice, and preserve the prosperity we have come to expect in a nation as rich as America. It would be easy to wonder if our government and our leaders are up to the task of facing these and other challenges that beset a great nation.  

But we have faced great challenges before, and our faith in freedom and democracy have carried us through. These may be unprecedented times, but the world has faced famine, disease, distrust and war time and again. Each time, we have not lost faith in our convictions, instead choosing to redouble our efforts to be true to them and to make the promises of liberty and self-determination a reality.

It may be easy for some to say democracy is not up to the task of meeting today’s challenges.  Enemies of democracy have long fought its advance around the globe, and they delight in America’s current struggles. Authoritarians in Iran, Venezuela and China dare to compare their nation to free ones and try to claim moral authority by highlighting America’s failings and divisions. Some even claim to support democracy, though in name only. 

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But what they do not understand is that democracies do not claim perfection; our willingness to shine a light on our imperfections is our very strength.

Nearly 40 years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan spoke about the power and promise of democracy in a seminal address to the British Parliament. He discussed the power of democracy and its superiority over Marxism-Leninism. He noted the durability of democracy, saying “Democracy is proving itself to be not at all a fragile flower,” even as he asserted that “it needs cultivating.”

His speech laid out a grand plan to take on that cultivation around the globe: “If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.” Reagan launched this ambitious program not because he sought to dominate other nations, but rather because of a “conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”

People around the world believed in the power of democracy then. Millions have flocked to it around the globe since, and continue to put their faith in it today. They recognize the power of people to change their governments and to change their lives. They fight to secure liberty for all people and to secure health and prosperity against immense natural and man-made challenges.  

Though our challenges are mighty, they are no greater than those faced by mothers in Cuba who brave threats and violence while peacefully walking to church to protest human rights violations, or journalists in Iran and China who are jailed or flogged for doing their jobs, or millions of citizens of Hong Kong fighting desperately to preserve their freedoms. They have put their faith in the power of democracy because they know anti-democratic tactics are not a sign of strength, they are a proof of weakness. 

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We must continue to believe in democracy’s power not only here in America, but around the world. If we were to lose faith in it at home, or to stop emphasizing its power around the globe, freedom and self-determination would be at risk everywhere. Reagan recognized this as well, stating, “In the communist world as well, man’s instinctive desire for freedom and self-determination surfaces again and again. … How we conduct ourselves here in the Western democracies will determine whether this trend continues.”

We should meet the challenges of our times here at home as we have encouraged those around the world to do so. Demand our rights, take action, hold leaders accountable, speak up and speak out, and vote. These are some of the critical values that form the foundation of all democracies and are often missing from those that merely claim to support it. The freedoms democracy enables separate free people from those living under oppressive regimes that do not cherish the values of democracy and seek to squash protest, silence opposing views, hide failure and cherish control over freedom.  

Democracy continues to be the best hope for mankind. Imperfect though it may be, it’s our quest for its perfection, shining a light on the unjust and ugly, when it is often at its best. It is only through this process that we create a more perfect union with a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Around the world, people continue to believe in this promise. We should not lose sight of it here at home as we struggle to meet the challenges of today.

Former Ambassador Mark A. Green serves as executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. He previously was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and served as president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit International Republican Institute. A former four-term congressman from Wisconsin, he was the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from mid-2007 to early 2009. Follow him on Twitter @AmbassadorGreen.