As we mark the 57th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy this Sunday, we might want to note the closing sentence in the speech he was scheduled to make at the Trade Mart in Dallas that fateful day. It was this quote from scripture: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”
The speech JFK never got to deliver was about national security during the Cold War, but his concluding citation seems as relevant today as it was then. What he was calling for in that speech was faith — not religious faith, but faith in ourselves, our country and our democracy.
Of course, we do not have — and do not want — a state religion in this country. In fact, our Constitution explicitly bans the establishment of one. But we do have a secular faith in democracy, freedom, and the form of government that is embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence – and 244 years of experience.
In 1963, President Kennedy was concerned about external threats in places like Laos, West Berlin, Cuba and a distant land called Vietnam. There are different foreign trouble spots today, and there will be new ones tomorrow. But arguably the biggest danger we face is internal: the loss of trust in our democracy and the institutions that sustain it.
Sadly, we have become our own worst enemies, undermining checks and balances such as a free press. For four years, the head of our government has labeled reporting he doesn’t like as fake news and the media as “the enemy of the people.” The rule of law has also been under fire from a president who believes he’s above all that, and who vilifies judges who don’t hew to his wishes.
Other abuses – against the non-partisan civil service, for example – have been well documented. But we’ve reached a new low with the ongoing campaign to deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. When the incumbent claims without offering credible evidence that the election is rigged against him and his followers wildly cheer him on, the bedrock of our democracy is shaken. If we decline to accept legitimate election results, the faith and trust needed to hold our democracy together will fray. And soon enough, break.
We are accustomed to telling others around the world that the peaceful and orderly transition of power is the surest test of democracy. Now, we ourselves could earn a failing grade. We may scrape through this time, but with weakened institutions and diminished trust in them.
That is how democracies die. And if we’re not democratic, what is the American story? Are we just another big kid who throws his weight around until others gang up on him? Was Lincoln wrong in saying ours was a government of the people, by the people and for the people? Did Black Americans and women battle so valiantly for so long to gain the vote only to see it devalued – selectively – when one part doesn’t like the outcome?
The alternative to democracy is strongman or authoritarian rule. We waged a revolution to get rid of that form of government. It’s no better choice now than it was in 1776, even if despots in Moscow and Beijing may claim otherwise. Ask the former dissidents in Eastern Europe who risked their lives to win the freedoms we take for granted whether they think the Soviet Union was superior. Ask the protesters on the streets of Hong Kong whether authoritarianism is what they want.
Winston Churchill said democracy was the worst form of government – except for all the others. Certainly, democracy can be frustrating and confounding. The best person doesn’t always win, and that can be hard to swallow; after one election, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago observed that, “the people have spoken – the bastards!” Democrats felt that way about the 2016 presidential election, but they accepted the result. That’s what we do. That’s democracy. Regroup and win the next one.
In that same undelivered speech, JFK was to say that “We, in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than by choice – the watchmen on the walls of freedom.” That may no longer apply in the Cold War sense of our being the world’s policeman, but we are still the world’s leading champion for democracy. For now. If we want to keep that title, we need to keep the faith, remembering that in a democracy, with their votes, the people rule.
Dick Virden retired from the Senior Foreign Service of the Department of State in 2004. He is a graduate of St. John’s University and the National War College.
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