For the past several weeks, I have had a surprising number of conversations with people who previously would only engage in slogans and ridicule when talking about American politics.  I think I know why that is, and it is far more positive than I thought at first.


Let’s position ourselves.  We know now who the nominees are for each party:  Donald Trump for the Republicans, and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.  There will not be a third party candidate.  All posturing aside, this is the reality.


Donald Trump has set the tone for his campaign:  no set policies, and personal attacks on his opponents.  Hillary Clinton has set the tone for her campaign:  policies that have been the same for years.  Trump is the candidate of the angry, and Clinton is the candidate of the safe.


Clinton has been the subject of attacks and investigations pretty much from the moment she arrived on the national scene.  From Whitewater to Benghazi, she has been bombarded with attacks on her character.  The result is that, rightly or wrongly, she is seen as untrustworthy.  Trump seems almost to attack himself.  He is the perfect caricature of a wheeler/dealer.  He will do anything and say anything to close the deal, and this time the deal is getting to be president of the United States.


So we have been conditioned to not trust Clinton and to not believe Trump.  We keep bemoaning this situation, but there is an enormously positive outcome.  Since we cannot rely on the candidates, we have to start thinking for ourselves again.  But why did we ever stop?


Because of a thing called the cult of personality.  A democracy, at least our democracy, works best when the representatives do the reasoned will of the people who elected them.  That means the people have to work hard to understand what is best for the country.  There is in this a constant temptation to avoid that hard work by voting in someone who will take care of all this for us.  So, instead of voting based on policy, we vote based on personality.  We thought we had done just this when we voted in John Kennedy.  We reveled in the pageantry of the White House parties and dinners, and we cheered as he pulled one poker after another out of national and international fires.  And we mourned his passing, in ceremony and remembrances akin to worship.  Why?  Because, I submit, John Kennedy was the archetype of a cult of personality.  And there is probably no more dangerous figure in a democracy.


We are now faced with two candidates, neither of which fill that bill.  So, instead of concentrating on the person, we are, as we should be, concentrating on the issues.  We are doing what a real, functioning democracy must do:  we are each doing the hard work of reasoning to the best policies to serve the interests of all.   That takes careful thinking, and, perhaps most of all, reasoned dialogue.  Instead of epithets, we are throwing out hard questions:  how should we spend our money?  How should we get that money?  Where and how should we regulate business and finance?  What issues should and should not be regulated by the states?  By the federal government?  By individuals?


These are incredibly tough questions, and most of us are not expert in the subjects.  But the essential point of a democracy is that, for good or for ill, the government is to reflect the will of the people, and, amazingly, the people, working together, generally do a pretty good job of choosing.  Plato was right that democracy was the worst form of government, but Twain was also right that it should be replaced only when we have found a better one.  We haven’t done that yet.  What we have done is again found both our voice and our ears.  However this election turns out, let us hope that we have rediscovered ourselves and our fellow citizens as united in our differences.


It is not difficult to see that Donald Trump has rendered the Republican party irrelevant in the race for president.  Paul Ryan, more and more looking the role of a lost boy, pretty much surrendered the campaign to Trump when he said that he would do whatever Trump wanted at the Republican convention.


However, the picture is not much different on the Democratic side.  The enspiriting core, the exciting vision, lies not with Hillary Clinton, who is now being considered on all sides as the “safe” candidate, but rather with Bernie Sanders.  It is Sanders who is setting the tone, and that tone is not political.  It is, above all, moral.


The phenomenon that Senator Sanders has become owes its rise to the fact that he speaks, not in terms of political unity, but rather within the constant theme of ideals.  He calls, not for a concentration of power, but for a unified commitment to the needs of the entire community.  Not even the most enthusiastic Sanders fan could have any realistic hope that Sanders would have any chance of getting his proposals enacted.  That doesn’t mean he is delusional about this.  He is not making his points as programs to be passed, but rather as ideals to be kept in front of those in power as they legislate on such subjects as health care, taxation and the environment.


Surprisingly enough, Trump’s campaign can only be understood on that very same plane.  Trump has abandoned, or rather ignored, the entire party mechanism, and so his campaign is entirely about him, and his message is a stark endorsement of the morality of self-interest.  That might in fact explain the inability of the Republican power brokers to stop Trump.  After all, Ryan, supposedly the most powerful Republican, held himself out as a devotee of the objectivism of Ayn Rand, which, whether Ryan knows it or not, is the clearest example of a morality of self-interest in modern times.


So for me the only way to understand the core tension of this campaign is to see it, not at all as a standard political campaign, but rather as a battle for the soul of America, a battle that mirrors the very tension of human existence.  To be human is both to be driven by self-interest, by enjoyment in its dual sense of pleasure and possession, and to aspire to a meaning beyond ourselves.  We both lust after wealth and comfort and suffer with and for those who have little or none of either.


In the end, then, this campaign may be one of the most important of our time.  We are forced, in choosing one of these candidates, to look into ourselves, and the winner will show us what we want to be as a nation.  We will be choosing much more than a candidate, and we are not at all choosing a party.  We are telling ourselves what we really mean by the American ideal.  We will be choosing between freedom as license and freedom as fulfillment of the ideals of inalienable human rights.


One small word of warning:  the outcome is not as obvious as one might guess.


John Cassidy, writing for the New Yorker, says that Bernie Sanders should stay in the race for four reasons:  his supporters want it, he still has a slim chance to win, it won’t affect the November election and Clinton did the same thing against Obama in ’08.


There is a fifth reason, far more significant than the first four:  he’s right.  Bernie Sanders has, in very plain and solidly reasoned language, exposed the exact needs of this country and, by contrast, he has also exposed the cancer at the heart of the policies proposed and followed by those who have wrested control of the Republican party.


Senator Sanders puts forth in plain language the basic needs of the people of this nation.  We need to provide basic health care to every citizen.  We need to provide a solid basic education to every child.  We need to make higher education available and affordable (and effective) for everyone who wants it and qualifies for it.  We need to make an all-out commitment to cleaning up the environmental mess we have made and leaving our succeeding generations with a world fit to live in.  And, finally, we need to have an economy that truly benefits all.


The Republican party, the party of Lincoln, the party of caring conservatism, has been co-opted by a cabal of self-serving people who care not a whit for the community and who speak, not forthrightly, but with blatant sideshow rhetoric.  Ask them what they will do about the environment, and they will tell you they will provide jobs.  Ask them what they will do about healthcare, and they will tell you that Obamacare is hurting business.  Ask them about income inequality, and they will call you a Communist.  What they won’t tell you is what they will do about these massive problems, and the reason they won’t tell you is that they plan to do absolutely nothing at all.  They are not true conservatives, nor are they true Republicans.  They are a bunch of self-serving power mongers.


When George W. Bush was elected, the group that was to run his presidency set forth three basic goals:  cut the income tax, cut or eliminate the capital gains tax, and cut or eliminate the inheritance tax.  That’s it.  They wanted nothing else.  They did not want to do anything about education, healthcare, infrastructure, environment.  They wanted money, plain and simple.  And they got it.  They cut education, opposed any kind of healthcare program, ignored the infrastructure, and, faced with overwhelming evidence that they were ruining the environment, they simply and brazenly denied it.


The response of those opposed to these egoistical bandits has been less than good.  President Obama tried reasoning with them, so they followed the audacious program of denying him absolutely any cooperation.  So blatant was this that, when he supported a bill that they had proposed, they voted their own bill down.  They appealed to prejudice, but they did so not merely to exercise their own bigotry, but for the sake of money.  Their goal was to make as much money as they possibly could, to keep these balloons up in the air as long as they could.  And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  And here they sit, floating in a sea of cash, with the country collapsing around them.


And then came Bernie.  Subtleties be damned.  Negotiation and compromised be hanged.  Bernie Sanders has stated it coldly and plainly.  Government exists for the benefit of the people, all the people.  It has not been that for a long time, and the people have suffered mightily for its lack.  This is no time to take baby steps back to sanity.  We need to have a government that serves the people, and we need it now.


Donald Trump’s success is a loud announcement by the real people of the Republican party that they are fed up with those who pretend to lead them.  Hillary Clinton is no doubt bright and experienced and knowledgeable.  But the time is long past when we could have cooperated with those presently in power.  The country is in crisis now, and we need a voice to tell us that we must act boldly and act immediately.  Senator Sanders is that voice, and we need to hear it as often and as long as possible.