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Celebrating Thanksgiving with Democracy in retreat – at home and abroad

Written By | Nov 23, 2021
Thanksgiving, Turkey, Roasting

WASHINGTON: If we ever needed to celebrate Thanksgiving and reflect upon our blessings, now is undoubtedly the time. Our political life, sadly, has become increasingly destructive. Our political parties do not view themselves as friendly adversaries engaged in the joint enterprise of governing. Instead, they view themselves as enemies, suggesting that the other party will destroy the country.

It was not too long ago when things were quite different. Working in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, I worked with Republican leaders like George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and Jack Kemp. They did not view Democrats as “enemies.” Instead, they sought to enter into coalitions on issues they both felt were best for the country. In those days, Republicans and Democrats worked together to win the Cold War and bring communism to an end, just as they worked together earlier to win World War ll. Additionally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed with support from both parties.

In those days, democracy worked. Let us hope it will one day work again.

It is interesting to reflect upon the first Thanksgiving, a subject of some historical debate.

Setting aside time to give thanks for one’s blessings, along with holding feasts to celebrate a harvest, are both practices that long predate the European settlement of North America. The first documented thanksgiving services in territory currently part of the United States were conducted by the Spaniards and the French in the 16th century.

Thanksgiving services were routine in what became Virginia as early as 1607.

The first permanent settlement of Jamestown held a thanksgiving celebration in 1610.

During “the starving time” (1609-10), the 300 settlers who huddled together dwindled to a group of 60 by the Spring thaw. John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indian tribe. That helped produce good relations between the settlers and the Native Americans.

In 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia. The group’s London Company charter specifically required that “the day of our Ship’s arrival at the place assigned in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

The most prominent historic thanksgiving event in American popular culture is the 1621 celebration at the Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts, where the settlers held a harvest feast after a successful growing season.

In 1969, I visited the Berkeley plantation on the James River, about 25 miles south of Richmond.

That year, the plantation celebrated the 350th anniversary of what is now widely recognized as the first Thanksgiving. I met with plantation owner Malcolm Jamieson, who displayed letters from President John F. Kennedy and former Massachusetts Governor John Volpe, declaring that Berkeley was the site of the first formal Thanksgiving in the New World.

It was as the home of the Harrison family that Berkeley achieved renown. Benjamin Harrison, a leader in colonial affairs, built the house his son, Col. Benjamin Harrison, inherited. He was a member of the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and three times Governor of Virginia. His close friend, George Washington, was often entertained there, and every president from Washington to Buchanan visited.

Walking around the grounds at Berkeley is to enter another more comfortable world.

Berkley is where America began, and those who now herald America’s doom would do well to return to its roots. Strong men and women built a nation on these often inhospitable shores. Of course, they made many mistakes—permitting slavery key among them—as people always won’t do. But they created a new society in which, as George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, “there would be none to make men afraid.”

We are a young country, but we are also an old one. Our Constitution is the oldest in the world. We have continuously maintained the freedoms to which we first paid homage. There has been no period of elimination of freedom of religion, press, or assembly. Because times, circumstances, and attitudes change, the Consitution did grow. We eliminated slavery, embraced equal rights for women, and legislated civil rights for all Americans. We have weathered wars and depressions.

Hopefully, we will also weather the difficulties we are now embroiled in.

But we will only do so if Americans begin to recall their history and values and not give permission to those who seek only to condemn and destroy.

Democracy now faces challenges never contemplated in the past. In a critical report issued by the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School at Harvard, “Can Democracy Survive in the Information Age?,” Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted provide this assessment:

“Democracies are increasingly vulnerable. Free speech is a core value of democracy. However, with the advent of social media platforms, the Internet is no longer just a static bulletin board but a place where any individual (or bot) can participate in the public debate in real-time. The nexus between the Internet and social media means that, without resorting to diplomacy or conflict, adversaries can change democracy’s behavior by influencing its citizens at scale and in real-time.”

Rosenbach and Mansted note that,

“The institutions’ democracies previously relied upon to provide objective facts have not adapted to the reality of the Information Age. Now, citizens’ information to inform how they vote, protest, and debate in the public square is distributed via a largely unmediated social media environment and frenetic 24/7 news cycle. By contrast, authoritarian states often control the media, censor the Internet, and in many cases shield their citizens from outside information through national firewalls.”

With the end of the Cold War, there was widespread hope that free societies would grow worldwide.

Now, they seem to be in retreat. In a recent report, Freedom House declared that freedom has been declining in the world for more than a decade. This reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region. “The pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat,” declares Freedom House.

Of particular concern, it notes, are “antiliberal populist movements of the far-right—-those that emphasize national sovereignty, are hostile to immigration and reject constitutional limits on the will of the majority.”

A brief look around the world shows us the increasingly disruptive activities of Russia, China, Belarus, Venezuela, and Myanmar, among others. Even in Western Europe, Hungary and Poland are being challenged by the European Union to retreat from democracy. Turkey is moving away from being a Western-style democracy. This list, sadly, is a long one.

In her article, “The Bad Guys Are Winning” (The Atlantic, Nov. 5, 2021), Anne Applebaum writes:

“If the twentieth century was the story of slow, even progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—-communism, fascism, virulent nationalism, the twenty-first century is, so far, a story of the reverse. Freedom House, which has published an annual ‘Freedom in the World’ for nearly 50 years, called its 2021 edition ‘Democracy Under Siege.’ The Stanford scholar Larry Diamond calls this an era of ‘democratic regression.'”

In Applebaum’s view,

“Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics. If America removes the promotion of democracy from its foreign policy…then autocracies will quickly take our place as sources of influence, funding, and models. If Americans don’t help to hold murderous regimes to account, those regimes will retain their sense of impunity. They will continue to steal, blackmail, torture, and intimidate inside their countries and ours.”

Thanksgiving should cause Americans to think seriously about the future of democracy—-both in our own country and the world. Democracy cannot work if we view those with whom we disagree as enemies. Or if we have contempt for compromise, which is essential in a democratic system.

In the past, Republicans and Democrats viewed themselves as fellow Americans. They were able to work together to solve our problems. If democracy is to survive into the future, we must return to the politics I remember. That is something for those committed to the narrow partisanship of today to think about on this Thanksgiving.



Read More from Allan Brownfeld



Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.