The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This 1972 speech is more relevant than ever this Fourth of July

Spectators watch from Queens as fireworks are launched over the East River and the Empire State Building on July 4, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
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“Come home, America.” That was the theme of the campaign launched 50 Julys ago by a senator from South Dakota named George McGovern as he accepted the Democratic nomination for president. McGovern was patriotic, courageous (he flew 35 combat missions in Europe in World War II), deeply religious and devoted to worthy causes. And he got whomped in the 1972 presidential election, after which the country got Watergate. McGovern made some bad mistakes in his campaign. (“For many years I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way,” he told one audience. “And last year I sure did.”) And his politics were probably too far left for many voters.

But the idea of “Come home, America” should have some resonance on this summer day of both celebration and anxiety, because an awful lot of Americans seem to have fallen under the spell of very un-American thinking in recent years. Foreign dictators and others inclined to tyranny — a word that was much in use in July of 1776 and is still relevant today — have captured the fancy of some who might once have stood firmly for the ideals and devotion to duty of those who fought and died to create a new republic as an example for the world.

Perhaps persuaded by our 45th president, they have instead become infatuated with foreign leaders of the “strongman” kind — in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and other places. In one example, the Conservative Political Action Conference went traipsing off to Hungary this spring to hold a convention and learn at the feet of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Mr. Orban is imposing what he calls “illiberal democracy” on his country and excited some people’s worst instincts by sounding alarms about a wave of Syrian refugees who, in fact, never came. He and his administration have been accused of repressing the media, tinkering with electoral processes, fostering corruption, weakening the judiciary and committing other offenses that have endangered his country’s standing in the European Union. But he has been sufficiently popular to be entering his fourth consecutive term of office. The big question that hangs over all regimes such as his: What happens when things go bad and the chief is voted out? Does he go quietly and graciously, as the law requires, or does he use all the powers of the state, which he has gradually perverted to his own purposes, to hijack the election and install himself as leader for life, by any means necessary?

If the CPAC pilgrims were looking for inspiration and enlightenment, they would have done better to travel just one country farther to the east — to Ukraine, where the results of illiberal democracy, or whatever you want to call it, are on hideous display as Russian President Vladimir Putin — admired until recently by quite a few American “conservatives” — pursues his warped vision of national greatness with unrelenting savagery. The Ukrainian people, united as never before, have shown the true Spirit of ’76 by fighting hard against the invader, and their allies in the West have supported them with arms and sanctions that give new meaning to the old patriotic song about a free people whose “banners make tyranny tremble.”

Meanwhile, at home, America on this Fourth is troubled and divided. But it has seen and experienced worse — rioting, rebellion, terrorism, civil war, the Great Depression — and it has adapted and endured. In his long-forgotten acceptance speech, McGovern (who died 10 years ago) delivered some words worth recalling on this day:

“It is the time for this land to become again a witness to the world for what is just and noble in human affairs. It is time to live more with faith and less with fear, with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.”