Memorial Day: A time to honor fallen heroes and pledge to defend democracy

On the battlefield, soldiers pride themselves on leaving no fellow soldier behind. Let us, as a nation, vow to leave the rights of no citizen behind.

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Bill Allen, of Winthrop, Mass., who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, volunteers maintaining the Massachusetts Military Heroes Flag Garden by replacing American flags at Boston Common onThursday in Boston.

A veteran volunteer replaces flags at the Massachusetts Military Heroes Flag Garden at Boston Common on May 26, in preparation for Memorial Day.

Steven Senne/AP

Memorial Day and trust go hand in hand.

The heroes we honor on this Memorial Day trusted that — by making the ultimate sacrifice — they would preserve a historic democracy supported by Americans to yet come.

But too many people have lost their trust in democracy. They don’t trust a majority of Americans will make the right choices in the voting booth. That trust needs to be renewed.

For all its faults, democracy has allowed Americans to live more fair and freer lives than residents of many other nations. Democracy might stumble down wrong turns for a while before it, hopefully, goes in the right direction.

But it is through democracy that Americans have risen up from time to time to institute basic reforms.

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Other forms of government, confidently striding down the wrong road, are unlikely to change course in the same way.

For democracy to work, though, Americans have to trust one another to use the power granted to citizens wisely.

Instead, democracy in America is under assault. The ominous signs are there for anyone to see, and every American ought to pay attention.

There are those who would do away with a one-person, one-vote system as they grab for power for themselves. They would like to set up a system in which state officials can simply overturn the popular vote, the will of the people, to their own benefit.

There are those who flood political campaigns with dark money, gerrymander voting districts and spread lies or misinformation on social media to prevent voters from making wise decisions on the issues.

A successful democracy does not harass election workers, including with death threats, for simply trying to make elections run smoothly and fairly. The Brennan Center for Justice says one in three election workers across the country feels unsafe.

A successful democracy does not seek ways to overturn democratically conducted elections.

A successful democracy does not rely on vilifying political opponents, pushing others to seek protection in their own anti-democratic silos.

These selfish actions are not what the bygone heroes we remember on Memorial Day fought for. They fought for something bigger than themselves.

But now, we see around the nation too many people trying to upend the promise of democracy.

We see a nation where too many seek to tear down the institutions that have provided support for democracy because they deem those institutions unwilling to cater to their own interests.

Many Americans today have enjoyed the privileges of democracy for so long, they forget how hard those privileges were to win for large numbers of their fellow Americans — women and African Americans, for example, who had to fight for the right to vote — and how easily they could be lost. They forget how most people in most countries in human history lived and died without ever tasting the individual freedom and pride that democracy bestows. They forget their debt to those who died to secure those rights.

It’s easy to criticize democracy. But those who have lived in countries run by dictators and unassailable ruling groups know how much worse that is.

It’s easy to scoff at democracy for the many evils that have flourished under its rule. But what other form of government allows citizens to come together to address those evils and banish them?

Opinion Newsletter

On the battlefield, soldiers pride themselves on leaving no fellow soldier behind. Let us, as a nation, vow to leave the rights of no citizen behind. Those who serve in the military cannot do that job by themselves.

Democracy is tricky. By allowing constant change at the top, it can allow a new president, for example, to push the nation in a direction from which it is hard to recover. It’s reasonable to fear that some candidates do indeed pose a real threat to our democratic institutions. It’s easy to fear the damage those candidates, who don’t value our hard-won freedoms, might cause if elected.

But we have inherited a great American experiment in democracy. On this Memorial Day, we must dedicate ourselves to leaving that experiment intact for future generations.

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