I have one plea for the Fourth of July: While I have no problem with saluting the military, the primary focus on Independence Day shouldn’t be the troops, because the United States of America isn’t defined by its military forces — and its freedom, its meaningful freedom, is created by and defended by politics, not armed force.
That was what the Founders believed, and they were quite right. Indeed, what Jefferson may have meant by “pursuit of happiness” was not the private happiness we think of now, but public happiness — an old idea that there is a particular form of pleasure in participating in collectively organizing our shared world.
So on the Fourth of July, I think we should honor our politicians, because democracy doesn’t work without them (and we should remember that public life is dangerous, too, so we should remember those assassinated in office and those who died performing their duties — American heroes including Leo Ryan, George Moscone and Harvey Milk; Hale Boggs, Nick Begich, John Heinz, Mel Carnahan, Mickey Leland, Paul Wellstone, and many more).
We should also honor the people who make our elections work. Yes, all of them — from the volunteers walking precincts, to the pollsters and other campaign professionals, to the reporters who tell us about the candidates, and all the way down to the little old ladies (and others, I’m sure, but at my precinct it’s always little old ladies) who work the polls on Election Day.
And we should honor those who make politics work outside of elections, too: those who organize and run interest groups no less than those who have made our great social movements happen.
What else? We should honor our government itself, and the many men and women who make it run (and, yes, that includes the troops, who are after all government employees).
All of these people — millions and millions of them who take some direct part in self-government beyond merely showing up to vote every once in a while — all of them create and re-create freedom by enriching the politics of the United States of America. They make us free by allowing us to create our own collective destiny, letting us choose our own path as a nation — they make us free by preserving the possibility of effective political action for those who, for the time being, would rather search for our own private happiness.
That, and not a purely or primarily militarized vision of the United States, is what the founding was all about. Even when they got some of it horribly wrong, and even when we still struggle to get it right. That vision of a people defined by their shared ability to make collective choices about themselves is why even those who were harshly excluded from inclusion then, and even those who are still excluded in part, can find something in the founding of the United States of America to find inspiration in.