For the people of any country, independence — that is, the freedom to control their own destiny — is an absolutely essential aspect of their national identity.
The United States isn’t the only nation that celebrates Independence Day this month. Among the others: Canada, Algeria, the Bahamas, Belgium, Colombia, Liberia, Malawi, Peru, Rawanda, Slovakia and Venezuela.
Without demeaning the significance of other celebrations, Americans can’t be blamed for feeling their Independence Day, which led to a democratic system that became a model for the world, is particularly special.
The United States has had its own traumatic struggles — especially the Civil War and the civil rights conflict — since declaring our independence from Great Britain in 1776.
But there is a widespread agreement among Americans of all ethnic, religious and political associations that pluralism is an essential element in our freedom, even if at times it is practiced imperfectly.
Sunnis and Shiites are fighting to the death in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Protestants and Catholics are still bitter rivals in places such as Northern Ireland, and Muslims and Christians slug it out in parts of Africa.
But religious tolerance is an accepted virtue in our nation. So is the idea that one individual’s vote is as good as another, regardless of wealth or social status.
But on this Fourth of July, when we have so much to celebrate, it is appropriate, if painful, to also acknowledge the embarrassingly low level of citizen participation in our democracy. Too many of us are taking our freedom for granted.
Since 1968, fewer than 60 percent of the registered voters have cast their ballots in America’s presidential elections. Voter turnout at other levels — state, county and municipality — is generally even lower.
Democracy — which is just another word for freedom — is best served when all of the citizens participate, even if that means no more than taking the time to register to vote and then to go to the polls on Election Day.
That more than 40 percent of those who even bothered to register haven’t cast their ballots when given the opportunity is dismaying.
Those who are eligible to vote but don’t are dismissing the handiwork of our Founding Fathers. The situation is particularly relevant this election year, when we have been interviewing dozens of political candidates.
These individuals are willing to labor long hours and risk ridicule and heartache in pursuit of public office.
It’s easy to demean “politicians” — and some deserve the scorn. But where would this country be if citizens were not willing to make such sacrifices to serve the public?
Regardless of whether we find candidates’ views or qualifications to our liking, we respect their willingness to advance democracy.
So, today let’s sing, with all our hearts, our favorite patriotic songs and enthusiastically congratulate ourselves on our good fortune to live in a country blessed with freedom. But let’s also resolve to do our part to encourage participation in the wonderful democracy the Founders wisely established for us.