I published this in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch eight years ago, on the morning of the New Hampshire primaries in the year John McCain lost the Repulican presidential nomination to George W. Bush. I think the message is still relevant today. (This is not intended as an endorsement.)
It’s no coincidence that many of our country’s most accomplished leaders have been less than overwhelmingly popular: typically, they have refused to pander to special interest groups or to the public for support, immersing themselves so deeply in their jobs that they have no time to care what anybody thinks of them.
But this is a lesson we refuse to learn. And so we persist in casting our votes for the candidates who look best on TV and speak in the catchiest sound-bytes or with the smoothest, most comforting rhetoric.
It’s depressing. It’s depressing that after two terms of scandals, doubletalk, and outright lies, so few people have come around to the realization that the best candidate is not the one who promises us what he thinks we want, but the one whose character shines.
Consequently, George W. Bush will probably win, not because he has proven himself better than John McCain but because he has raised the most money, bought the most exposure, and told us repeatedly what we want to hear. And he will probably face Al Gore, not because Mr. Gore has proven himself better than Bill Bradley but because he is the Vice President and people have been hearing his name for the last eight years.
It’s not the process that needs an overhaul. It’s us. If we ever hope to realize the potential of our richly variegated national culture and benefit from the consolidation of our widely differing values and perspectives, what we need desperately are voices of moderation. Not voices of indecision, and not voices that strike the middle road because it is in the middle, but voices that cry out to resist the pull of extremism and raise the banner of reasonable negotiation. Not voices that compromise out of ambivalence but voices that preach the necessity of unwavering commitment to and occasional sacrifice for the ideals and goals that best serve the national interest. Not voices of mediocrity, but voices of integrity.
The problem with moderates is that they tend to behave moderately, attracting far less attention than the rantings of the far right or the far left. And so, to respond to the polarization and philosophical gridlock of our times we need immoderate voices of moderation, voices from statesmen who refuse to toe the party line when the party has strayed from the straight path and who refrain from railing against the opposition for no reason other than because they sit on the other side of the aisle.
We have the incredible good fortune in this election to have each major party fielding a candidate of character and moderation. A presidential race between Bill Bradley and John McCain would give us the opportunity, perhaps for the first time in decades, to choose between two good men instead of having to choose the lesser of two evils.
Still, both men remain long shots. For even though hardly anybody seems to really like either of front-runners, both of them benefit from political inertia. George Bush and Al Gore are the front-runners because they are the front-runners: everybody wants to vote for a winner.
Really, nothing could be more foolish. My one vote will not decide even the tiniest local referendum, much less a national election. So why do I vote? I vote because I want to be part of the process, because I understand that an election is determined by many individual votes, just as choral music is produced by many individual voices. Imagine what would happen if everyone sang off key.
Our most savvy politicians know that public opinion is swayed most effectively through repetition, and they drum their messages into our collective subconscious through the incessant buzz of pre-election advertising. Political propaganda is so pervasive that we’re hardly even aware of it anymore, but we grow indifferent to it at our peril. Adolph Hitler used it to corrupt the soul of Germany. Joseph McCarthy very nearly accomplished the same thing here in America. But if propaganda can be employed for self-serving ends, why can’t we turn it around and utilize it for our benefit?
The world is not changed for the better by grand promises and flashy advertisements, but by the measured, steady, constant declaration of human values and human dignity. This is how responsible parents raise their children, by teaching them over and over again what is right until the message sinks in. And this is how we can shape our society: by speaking civilly, by acting nobly, and by choosing leaders who will do the same.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2000)