On the Fourth of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate Independence Day. Especially as part of a three-day weekend, the festivities include parades, picnics and cookouts, outdoor concerts, and fireworks shows. Independence Day is the biggest national holiday that is not faith-based, as are Christmas and Easter. Best of all, though, is that the day commemorates signatures on a document. The holiday is not about victory in battle, like Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo. It is not about a mob storming a castle, like France’s Bastille Day. Independence Day is about ideas: the idea of freedom, the idea of human rights, and the idea of government limited by the people and responsible to the people.
Thomas Jefferson echoed the philosophy of John Locke when he wrote that “all men are created equal… [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke’s formula had been simpler—life, liberty, and property—but nothing is more American than the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed. Being created equal does not ensure that all people will be equally happy. We possess the right to pursue happiness, seeking happiness where we expect it to be found.
All rights are limited. Most Americans concede that a murderer or other violent criminal has waived a right to life, although a minority opposes the death penalty in all cases. Americans generally agree that certain crimes lead to imprisonment, a loss of liberty, although ongoing prison reform is needed to keep imprisonment from being a cruel and unusual punishment. Nearly all Americans concede the right of the government to tax its citizens so it can provide services needed by those citizens. These include the work of armed forces to keep citizens safe from hostile foreign governments and terrorists, police protection where we live, public schools, highways, inspections of various kinds to protect workers and customers and to limit pollution, and many other government functions. Citizens debate how many services the government should provide and how much property and liberty it can claim to make those services available. My point is that we can debate these questions. We can talk about them and write about them without fear of arrest and punishment. We can send messages to our leaders. We can vote leaders out of office and replace them with new leaders. We can work in campaigns of potential leaders or campaigns targeting specific policies and causes.
Freedom is not cheap. Not only do we need armed forces to protect us from those who would rob us of our freedom; we also need men and women willing to serve as leaders. These men and women know that they will be publicly insulted, mocked, and reviled. They expect to work long hours to educate themselves about the issues facing government, to respond to requests from the citizens they represent, and to talk to one another about the choices that must be made in their sessions. They will be paid less money than they could receive in other careers for which their abilities qualify them. They will be called “politicians” as if that word is vulgar. The positions they take will be challenged vigorously by opponents, and then they will be scolded by their supporters for compromises they must make to accomplish the work of government.
The word “politics” comes from the word “polis,” which described the independent units of ancient Greece (such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth). Some poleis were monarchies; others were oligarchies. Athens experimented with broader participation in government, which their leaders called “democracy.” To make democracy work, citizens had to talk to each other. They had to listen to each other. They had to defend the ideas that were most important to them. They had to compromise on some of their ideas to preserve those ideas that ranked highest to them.
Politics is the art of communication and compromise which allows a government to rule wisely and efficiently. Otto von Bismarck is quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages—you lose your appetite for them when you see how they are made.” Politics is not a career for the weak-hearted or the thick-headed. Politics requires quick and clear thinking, the ability to listen and to speak, and zeal for serving the citizens of a city, a state, or a country. Politics requires a strong trust in one’s own abilities, but also the humility to realize that, in every election, more than half the candidates are going to lose.
America needs politicians. In the United States, we have the privilege to choose among our politicians, to try to select the best of them to be our leaders, to disagree with our leaders, to inform them of our positions and beliefs, and to work to replace the leaders we think are wrong. This freedom, defined by the Continental Congress in 1776 and eventually structured by the Constitution of the United States, is celebrated on Independence Day across this great land. From sea to shining sea, let freedom ring! J.