It’s been about 80 years since western democracy was threatened by the wave of fascism that swept across Europe and led to the most devastating military conflict in human history.
For young people today, particularly here in the States, the story of World War II is one we’ve heard so many times that our basic understanding of it seems almost second-nature. The history reads like legend the older it becomes, a cataclysmic event made increasingly (and comfortably) distant by a growing number of years, even as we continue to memorialize it in our monuments, holidays, films and books.
And yet less than half of Americans bother to vote in presidential elections, while the number is even less for mid-term and local elections. That alone seems enough to argue that appreciation for our democracy seems mostly rhetorical.
We haven’t faced the blatant attacks to our political and personal freedoms that so many around the world have long endured; and that privileged lack of experience has enabled us in taking democracy for granted.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty-Wendell Phillips
On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder explains why democracy requires constant vigilance by its citizenry, how even in a land like America, so famed for it’s checks and balances and its democratic institutions and individual freedoms, a government can still be perfectly vulnerable to the same forces that spread through Europe once upon a time, forces which are beginning to creep up not-so-discreetly again.
Democracy is precious, and this book is a valuable resource for anyone looking to more deeply understand and remember why, a book we all ought to read and keep on our shelf–to be read and re-read perhaps every Memorial Day.
Here’s an excerpt from the book we found particularly noteworthy, regarding the above quote.
Thomas Jefferson probably never said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," but other Americans of his era certainly did. When we think of this saying today, we imagine our own righteous vigilance directed outward, against misguided and hostile others. We see ourselves as a city on the hill, a stronghold of democracy, looking out for the threats that come abroad. But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end. The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." He added that "the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten."
-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)