Democracy by example

America's original crusaders for freedom in their own land did not consult a think tank on how to do it. And President Reagan's proclaimed crusade for democracy in other countries does not have to await the bipartisan foundation study he recently announced in London. The United States is a continuing crusade for democracy in the example it sets, an example that has inspired the stirrings of freedom far from its shores. By maintaining and bolstering that example, Mr. Reagan - and his fellow Americans - can do more for democracy in the world than in any other way.

The signing of a renewed Voting Rights Act was a good augury - a well-timed reminder of America's ideals just before the Independence Day celebrations. Mr. Reagan had disappointingly called for weaker legislation. But, as he put his name on a respectable compromise bill, he noted that ''actions speak louder than words.'' It was a promising rubric for the firm enforcement of the law that demands presidential leadership.

Actions louder than words are also needed now that the Equal Rights Amendment has missed its deadline for ratification. Recall that Mr. Reagan's opposition to the amendment carried with it his insistence that he would support equal rights through working to eliminate sex-discriminatory laws across the board.

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The President could begin by consulting the thick report on discrimination within the federal government's own laws left by the presidential task force launched by President Ford. One target for leadership might be the Civil Rights Act of 1964 itself. Its Title VI prohibits discrimination in federally assisted programs on the basis of race, color, or national origin - with sex conspicuously omitted. According to the task force, the result has been inefficiency and confusion; and sex discrimination - the bias which affects more Americans than any other - gets second-class status in enforcement priorities.

But the challenge of crusading for democracy through exemplifying democracy is not only Mr. Reagan's. It calls to homes, schools, churches, businesses, unions, political parties, and other institutions, not to mention every individual. Their respect for each other's rights and freedoms, their inculcation of democratic values - these are essential to the grand enterprise of freedom.

Where does Mr. Reagan's new program for directly supporting democracy in third-world and other countries fit in? He evidently sees a role for public and private US efforts in shoring up the free press, labor unions, political parties , and other democratic institutions. Here the study he has ordered could be valuable in recommending means to do so in keeping with the wishes of people on the spot and without repeating counterproductive interventionist efforts of the past.

There may well be room for more of the union-to-union support that has long been undertaken by the AFL-CIO. American business has prime opportunities to observe and represent human rights in its ventures abroad. For example, in racially discriminatory South Africa, various US companies are observing the so-called Sullivan principles for justice in the workplace. Some are cooperating with black labor unions.

Somehow, at home or abroad, it all comes back to a basic simplicity: Americans acting like Americans. Actions that speak louder than words.

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