Over 1.1 million people have given their lives for the United States in wars occurring in four centuries — but it’s complicated. Over half died in the Civil War, and nearly half of that number died trying to destroy the United States. The so-called confederacy launched our worst war to preserve their access to the free labor of enslaved people, bedrock of their economy. The battle hymn of preserving the union held no appeal. They knew abolition would make them vassals of the industrial north. After the war, they exploited and oppressed people of African descent for another century or more, compounding the sin of slavery and the debt we owe for it.
This Memorial Day, patriotic songs fall on muffled ears on both the left and right side of the body politic. Many progressives believe justice for all is beyond the reach of political and economic liberalism, thinking it moves too slowly and has been corrupted by white supremacy. Other folks (I among them) resent how slavery-era federalism holds us down. The renewed candidacy of the criminal seditionist Trump, a one-man civil war, is conceivable only because a Republican can get power from the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by a landslide. Turkey’s strongman at least had to win a majority in a runoff. Not so in the land of the free. NPR did the math a few years ago. You can occupy the White House with 23% of the popular vote.
The conservative critique must be repeated delicately. It is essentially that our system, and even democracy in general, tend toward larger government, higher taxes, and less individual freedom. Conservatives fear that a paternalistic state, run by politicians doling out goodies, will smother initiative and liberty, the only things that create wealth, progress, and opportunity. Just writing that sentence made me sleepy. Voters don’t want to hear it, either. So the GOP awakens them with alarms against the woke. A movement ostensibly devoted to the dignity and thriving of the individual survives by scapegoating brown immigrant workers and LGBTQ+ people, notwithstanding that the Declaration of Independence vouchsafed their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness along with everyone else’s.
The million martyrs of Memorial Day died for a nation that moves too slowly for some of us and too fast for others. That can’t figure out how to protect a fetus’s and a woman’s rights at the same time (we can; we just have to want to). That seems to be losing any conception of the common good. That has lost the moral clarity won by the 400,000 who gave their lives fighting fascism in World War II. That grew cynical after our wars against communism and terrorism.
All in all, U.S. democracy really is the pits. The only thing worse is the alternative. Speaking of which, Putin and Xi have gotten together and decided our best days are behind us. Not so fast. Standing up for Ukraine, passing earth-friendly infrastructure programs, and the debt ceiling deal were sparks of new life, suggesting attentiveness to what the majority of Americans want. Every 2024 presidential candidate promising to do their best for all our people would be an especially glorious tribute to those who gave the last full measure of devotion to the last best hope of earth. Because I have no doubt they’re listening.