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.