Something fascinating is happening in Hong Kong. The young students there who have been demonstrating for greater democracy and freedom have taken up waving American flags and singing our national anthem as they confront police. This peaceful action harkens back to similar scenes in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, when young demonstrators there erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty to represent their same hope for more freedom.
We know how those protests in 1989 ended: The Chinese army swept in and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of young people. The brutal attack crushed the country’s fledgling democracy movement and left the Chinese Communist Party firmly in control. Today the Chinese army is massed just outside Hong Kong, and threatens to swarm in to snuff out the growing rebellion.
It is telling that when young people half a world away think of freedom, it’s America — and American values of freedom — that come to mind first. Maybe we’ve become too used to seeing the American flag burned by angry mobs amid chants of “Death to America!” to fully appreciate the great power of the American ideal for oppressed people everywhere. Even in terrorist-sponsoring Iran, where radical Islamist ayatollahs hold absolute power, the mass of young people aspire to freedom and democracy. Given the chance, they would throw off their Islamist masters and embrace a freer society.
Closer to home, the U.S. stands as a beacon of hope for millions of oppressed and impoverished people in Latin America. Unlike places like China and Iran, where barriers are erected to keep people locked in and put down, we must maintain barriers to keep people from flooding in, not out. It’s safe to say that if our borders were totally open, as some on America’s far left urge, our country would be overwhelmed with refugees seeking their own American dream. The lifeboat that is America would be swamped!
So why, then, does it seem that democracy is fraying in so many free countries even as it is the ideal of people in oppressed societies? Why, for instance, is democracy in England reeling under the strain of Brexit, with the world’s oldest parliament tied in unbreakable knots over a solution to this self-inflicted crisis? Why do great nations like Italy make a constant mockery of democracy by sliding from one government to another every year or two? And here in the U.S., why is our own government also seemingly locked in an endless impasse over critical issues like shoring up Medicare and Social Security and dealing with our broken immigration system?
Maybe the problem we older democracies face is that we suffer from too much democracy. We have become too apt to sway with the tides of popular opinion, with every special-interest group pressing for the advantage of its own entitlement or the redress of its special grievance. Congress is paralyzed by the fear its members feel when confronting any tough issue. They especially fear the threat of primary election opponents who will wield the ballot box to punish any perceived deviation from party orthodoxy, whether on the left or the right.
There’s no easy way out of the impasses and shortcomings of democracy. It’s likely that the British Parliament will struggle for years with the aftermath of Brexit. It’s likely that Italy will cycle through another dozen governments in as many years. Yet those democracies aren’t the ones that will hold high the torch of freedom for the rest of the world. That role falls to the U.S. But if democracy stumbles and fumbles here, it may completely fail in its more fragile forms and locales.
If our government can’t get its own act together and press the advantage of democracy over its weaknesses, how will the world follow a flailing leader? If our democracy falters over fundamental issues of stability and prosperity, if we fail again and again to take on and solve tough yet solvable issues, how long can we expect young idealists on the streets of Hong Kong or Tehran to hold us up as their shining example?
Commenting on the inherent challenges in any system of open and free government, Winston Churchill observed that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. It’s up to America to prove him right, and prove all those who oppose democracy wrong.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.