I have a theory. It is that the election will be a referendum on us, the American people: Not so much on the politicians themselves -- who in a large sense are our creatures -- as on our capacity for sound and discerning judgment, for wise and mature reflection. Can we ask sober questions and listen soberly to sober answers concerning Medicare and Social Security and the debt and the deficit? Or will jeering and mud throwing prove the real attractions -- the insults, the lies, the evasions?
The love of an insult or just a good lie goes far back in human experience -- another way of saying that demagogues (the word is Greek -- "stirrers up of the people") perpetually walk among us. There was Alcibiades once and Antony; now there's Congressman Steve Israel, to name just one of the dimmer lights in a party not well disposed to democratic illumination.
"Democratic." Note the word. Shorn of its capital letter, it means "of the people," the people as their own governors, blessed or cursed by their own perceptions of the right way. Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America," saw the danger nearly 200 years ago: A democratic nation offers "singular facilities for the establishment of despotism." Once it "stupefies" the people, "each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."
The shepherds, lacking our democratic assent, can do zilch. That's one election-year message to remember, and here's another, directed to the shepherds: We sheep aren't half as dumb or indifferent as we sometimes look.
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