With election fever raging, I’m revisiting a few commentaries I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two election cycles ago. I think some of them are worth another look.
I was a junior in college when I cast my first presidential ballot, firm in my conviction that Ronald Reagan would cure the nation’s ills by doubling defense spending, cutting taxes, and balancing the budget, all at once. And yet, for all my youthful naivete, I invested considerable time researching candidates and initiatives in order to make enlightened choices. Now, however, in the maturity of middle age, between three jobs and four children, time is something I can no longer afford.
So I pay a different price: never before this past election day have I felt so sickened by my own ignorance, by my lack of familiarity with the issues. I rubber-stamped judgeships, punched third-party candidates who I knew could never win, and tried to decide between proposals based on pseudo-knowledge gleaned from radio talk shows and advertisements. And, as I slunk away from the polling place, one morbid thought reverberated in my brain: I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
I checked with my friends. I’m not.
The truth is that we could find the time if we felt motivated to do so. Instead, when weighed against our job and family commitments, we shirk our civic duty without much remorse; ultimately, we don’t believe it really matters. Nor does our apathy stem primarily from a dislike or mistrust of the candidates on the ballot (although we don’t like them and we don’t trust them), but from a loss of faith in the public’s ability to make informed, well-reasoned decisions, even if we do.
One recent example is the failed (1998 Missouri) tobacco initiative. When it was introduced, the public strongly supported it. But after the tobacco industry’s multi-million dollar ad campaign associating the bill with big government, the public voted it down. If huge corporations can buy elections, why should I invest my meager resources trying to tip the scale?
It’s been many years since my high school social studies classes, but what I remember about American democratic theory is that the framers intended for us to choose representatives based on their integrity, their commitment to the welfare of the collective, and their ability to understand and evaluate matters of public policy. Merely to fathom government affairs is at least a full time job, and We The People need to recognize that we may not have sufficient exposure or grasp of all the facts and figures to make competent decisions, much less the panoramic overview of the political landscape necessary to keep all that information in perspective.
In short, popular opinion makes for an unsteady moral or legislative compass. Slavery was enormously popular. So was excluding women from the vote. So was segregation. We might never have cast off these social anachronisms if our leaders had not shown us the way.
Our current leadership crisis stems from the simple reality that we don’t want our representatives to lead. We don’t want leaders at all, but government by consensus. We want civil servants who read the polls daily and do what we tell them, who don’t make judgements about whether popular opinion is right or wrong. I wonder if Karl Marx anticipated this when he envisioned the dictatorship of the proletariat.
More likely, this is what the sages of the Talmud envisioned when they predicted a future generation characterized by “the face of a dog.” A dog walks out in front, followed by a man holding on to a leash. To all appearances, the dog is leading the man. But when the dog is uncertain which direction to take, it looks over its shoulder for instruction from its master. Such are our political leaders today, never making a move or taking a turn without first consulting the polls. And that’s exactly the way we like it.
What we like, however, is not often what’s best for us. I for one, would sleep better at night knowing that the ship of state is steered by a captain who does not feel compelled to consult every deck hand before making command decisions.
Of course, with so few commanders deserving of our confidence, it’s not surprising that we have more faith in our own judgement than we have in theirs. But this, too, is our own fault, for we continue to insist that integrity is not an essential quality for leadership. Such an attitude attracts candidates of little substance, and we choose between them based upon what they promise to do rather than what they promise to be. True, integrity alone is not enough. But without integrity, even the most capable administrator will fail to provide for our nation and our communities what is for us, in these uncertain times, most needed: a model of personal and national responsibility.
Apathy at the polls reflects apathy with our leaders, which implies that many Americans do in fact long for a more distinguished list of candidates from which to choose, come election day. But from where will leaders of integrity appear? Only when we as a society begin to insist on a moral standard, then such people will be drawn back to public service. Before that happens, however, we have to outgrow our childish insistence on getting what we want, and learn to appreciate that what is best for the nation is ultimately what is best for us.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 1999)