Let me attempt to say this as dis-tinct-ly as possible, over the vote-counting, vote-disputing hubbub: Democracy depends on ... morality.
I Knew that might startle some folks. Morality?! That stuff they used to teach in churches? Sexual repression? No drinkin', no dancin'? No gay Scout leaders?
Let us broaden that definition considerably. Let us talk of right and wrong; what we ought to do instead of what we can get by with; what we owe others as opposed to what we imagine we owe ourselves.
And, in such a context, let us talk about this election and its grisly aftermath.
The Florida vote dispute rubs all our noses -- Republican, Democratic, Naderian and Buchananite -- in grimy reality. The reality is that desire for power can seduce people, who may not be inherently awful, into some pretty awful actions.
To prevent this, the wise society will do two things: 1) restrict power to reduce its attractions and 2) teach -- make that, insist on -- maintenance of a relatively high standard of personal duty and responsibility to the community.
That's what a wise society would do. Our intermittently wise polity, with a stack of laws and regulations as high as the Capitol dome, offers more power than is good for any ordinary servant of the public. As for morality, it leaves that up to individuals more and more.
Matters could be worse. Look at poor Zimbabwe, whose Stalinist "leader,'' Robert Mugabe, says no supreme court can tell him not to steal white-owned farms! Blithely, he goes on stealing them.
Note an odd juxtaposition: the New York Post's assertion on Sunday that "Al Gore and his lieutenants are trying to steal this election.'' And the question posed the next day by Wall Street Journal editor, Robert Bartley, "Is this a banana republic or not?''
In other words, are we turning into Zimbabwe? Not yet. But leave some room for caution.
If tunnel-vision zeal is any measure, the Democrats (their name suggesting a soulful commitment to democracy) want this election more than the Republicans do -- even unto:
1. Having Gore's campaign chairman, Bill Daley, in the wee hours of Nov. 9, 2000, assure us, "This campaign continues.'' Not "this exercise in democracy'' -- this post-electoral attempt to coax a particular result out of the system.
2. Directing telemarketers -- with polls still open -- to call thousands of Democrats in Palm Beach County, suggesting that they might have accidentally voted for the wrong candidate.
3. Dispatching Jesse Jackson to Florida. Maybe, in fairness, no one ever dispatches Jesse. Still, his party didn't try to restrain him. Thus, characteristically, he portrayed the Florida voting dispute as a possible conspiracy against civil rights.
4. Commissioning Daley -- a scion of a family known for its ballot-counting expertise -- to threaten legal action in the interest of a fair count.
Amid the uproar, the president of the United States has made himself scarce. It is hard to believe, nonetheless -- given the energy with which he and his wife have fought acceptance of responsibility for everything imputed to them, before, during and since impeachment -- that he would disavow the Gore scenario. That scenario, we can readily see now, calls for doing what it takes to win.
Winning, we're all supposed to understand, is what the art of self-government is about. Got to have that power! Without it, Al Gore can't "fight'' for us. Nor can he fulfill whatever personal destiny he imagines for himself.
Morality entails the setting aside of self: more particularly, the setting aside of short-term advantage in obedience to that which serves the whole, not just a tiny corner of that whole.
The founders knew how hard a matter this is. They knew that the whole, the state, isn't always just or right, any more than the individual always is. They knew at the same time that liberty and license live at different addresses. Do what's best for you all the time, and no one's liberty is safe. Do what you ought to do -- in accordance with intricate codes worked out over thousands of years -- and everyone's liberty becomes more secure.
No morality, no democracy -- this would be the succinct way of expressing it. No democracy, because without trust and scrupulosity and respect for rules and limits, you've got -- well, you've got Zimbabwe, actually. Though, as I say, we're not there yet -- occasional appearances to the contrary.