Ukrainians are now building their own monuments to democracy, with their blood. For more than a week, the world has been transfixed by their battle to repel the mighty Russian army and preserve the birth of democracy in their homeland.
But here’s another reason why the Ukraine struggle is so inspiring:
This is also the stuff that built the US.
The Ukrainians are teaching Americans two lessons about democracy that many of us have forgotten.
Lesson 1: The most ferocious defenders of democracy are those who have been denied it
Ukrainian’s democratic tradition bears little comparison to the US at first glance. The country has been independent for only 31 years.
But that history of brutality is partly why so many Ukrainians are willing to fight so hard for democracy.
Freedom tastes sweeter for those who have never had it.
This is the same dynamic that helped make the US.
The most fervent believers in American democracy tend to come from groups that have been denied liberty and equality — either in the US or from their country of origin.
The first people who made a genuine democracy a reality in the US were Black civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, and other Southern cities. They forced the US to abandon its neo-apartheid political system by pushing Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Many of these immigrants left countries run by dictators and convulsed by civil wars and political violence because of one American trait: Our democratic ideas.
Lesson 2: Ordinary people are the true heroes of democracy
A journalist asked him what it was like to go from being a comic actor to becoming a globally acclaimed wartime leader. But Zelensky was not interested in adding to the Western praise of his charismatic leadership.
“I’m not iconic,” he said. “I think Ukraine is iconic.”
It’s the kind of statement that would have made the “embattled farmers” who fought at Concord during the Revolutionary War nod in recognition. Ordinary people, not charismatic leaders, sustain democracy. This was an abiding belief throughout US history.
This attitude, though, wasn’t confined to World War II. It was there at the nation’s beginning. It was Nathan Hale, an American Revolutionary War officer, who reputedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
And it wasn’t confined to the military. There’s a generation of Americans who entered the Peace Corps because of what President John F. Kennedy declared at his 1960 inaugural address:
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can for your country.”
When asked what he learned from studying US history, historian Howard Zinn once said, “Democracy is not what governments do; it’s what people do, too.”
His message: Don’t depend on saviors.
“Don’t depend on the founding fathers, on Andrew Jackson, on Theodore Roosevelt, on Lyndon Johnson, on Obama,” Zinn said. “Don’t depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done, because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it’s done so only because it’s been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing.
“Lincoln was pushed by the antislavery movement,” he added. “Johnson and Kennedy were pushed by the Southern Black movement…”
It’s a lesson many contemporary Americans have seem to have forgotten. Our political discourse is driven by searches for a savior: a charismatic leader who will vanquish the other side; a pivotal Supreme Court appointment that will finally “take back” the country, a commentator who will “destroy” opponents on TV.
Many have stopped believing that ordinary people can change anything because of political gridlock.
The spirit of democracy in the US feels like it’s under siege
But that burst of civic participation was followed by 19 states passing voter restriction laws. The pandemic became a political wedge issue. And the US still lags behind most developed nations when it comes to voter turnout.
Today it’s Ukranians — not Americans — who are embodying Kennedy’s exhortation: They’re asking what they can do for their country, not the other way around.
McTague said the US and Western Europe have lost their sense of being a force for moral good and taking on heroic struggles in the cause of freedom. Instead we follow cynical opportunists in shows like “Succession” and “Billions” and pragmatic, cautious leaders who lack any overt idealism, he said.
In standing up to Putin, McTague wrote, “Ukraine is articulating a certain idea of itself that is righteous and dignified and heroic — virtues we long ago dismissed as old-fashioned. How tragic it is that Zelensky’s idea has to be attacked for us to be reminded of ours.”
It would be more tragic if Americans could no longer remember the ideas we stand for at all.
Our country’s history is filled with brutality. It is also riddled with hypocrisies. Yet that’s why monuments like the Minute Man still stand. They remind us of who we are at our best, that democracy is something worth fighting, and dying for.
Ukrainians know that. We used to know that.
Their story echoes our story.
Let us not forget.