To keep a democracy, resist complacence

In the United States we take many things for granted. One of them is that our democracy will function peacefully.

We vote, and the winner takes office. If voters kick someone out, that politician leaves office. Even if millions voted for the loser – even if the vote is so close the Supreme Court picks the winner in a ruling many observers considered blatantly partisan – we don't erupt into riots or war.

We've come to equate “democracy” with a stable, equitable political system.

But the two aren't equal, and the difference between them can be as wide as the ocean that separates George Washington from Robert Mugabe. On Independence Day, it's fitting to think about U.S. democracy and how we, the people, must ensure that it keeps on succeeding.

General Washington commanded the Continental Army, which defeated the British to establish our nation's independence. Then he served two terms as president. He refused to serve any longer and retired to his beloved Mount Vernon, Va.

Mr. Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe since 1980, rose to prominence as a freedom fighter against the British in what was then Rhodesia. Now 84, he refuses either to retire or to let himself be voted out of office. Indeed, he grasps at power through methods both hair-raising and repugnant, using terrorism, kidnapping and torture against his opponents. Under his leadership his once-admired nation is all but ruined. Unemployment runs about 80 percent. Mr. Mugabe has been in the news recently because in March he lost an election in which his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, won a plurality. But a runoff was needed. By the time of the June 27 runoff, scores of Mr. Tsvangirai's supporters had been killed. He dropped out, not wanting further deaths. The unsurprising result was that Mr. Mugabe won the runoff with 85 percent. (Citizens were threatened with death if they failed to vote for him.)

Yet Zimbabwe is, technically, a democracy. Russia is technically a democracy. Plenty of countries claim to be democracies. Just claiming it, and holding elections, is no guarantee of political freedom.

Of course, the United States in its 200-plus years of history has had its own issues. Even George Washington, he who peacefully relinquished office, was a slave-owner who denied people the most essential of freedoms. We endured a bloody civil war before the question of slavery was settled and black men were given a right to vote. Half the nation's population – women – couldn't vote until 144 years after the Declaration of Independence, which declared, “All men are created equal.”

And we don't have to look as far as Zimbabwe to find democratically elected leaders behaving badly. President Richard Nixon, forced to resign in 1974, used the government to spy on political opponents and then lied about it. A growing body of evidence indicates the Justice Department of the sitting president, George W. Bush, improperly applied political litmus tests in hiring – and opponents say it targeted Democrats for politically motivated prosecutions. That isn't the same as Mugabe's beatings and torture, of course, but this administration is no stranger to beatings and torture on foreign soil: Consider Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Consider President Bush's “signing statements” saying he won't follow laws he doesn't agree with.

The point of all this is that a democracy won't succeed and survive unless citizens, including voters and office-holders, work at it. It's up to all Americans to know what our elected officials are doing, to reel them in when they go astray, and – this goes for office-holders, too – to hold even allies to account.

It's trite to say the United States has been blessed. But it's hard to look at history and today's world without feeling a powerful gratitude that this country, however flawed, keeps its eye on the ideals expressed 232 years ago, in the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”