“Things like faith, love of country, courage and dedication – they are all part of the inner strength of America. And sometimes, they do not become self-evident until there is a time of crisis.” – Ronald Reagan, September 9, 1974
“Well, I know this. I’ve laid down the law, though, to everyone from now on about anything that happens: no matter what time it is, wake me . . . even if it’s in the middle of a cabinet meeting.” – Ronald Reagan, April 13, 1984
One thing that has always distinguished small d democrats from more aristocratic skeptics is a faith in the people’s judgment. Jefferson, Lincoln, Reagan, and most recently, William Jefferson Clinton all believed that the people will make the right choice if they know the truth. If people have the facts they’ll make a good decision, the democrats have said. That’s a pretty big qualification, though, this appeal to truth and facts. We know that getting good information, and then making sound judgments about the information, is not easy work. In fact, if you have done a good job of evaluating your facts, you’ve already done most of what you need to do to make a good decision.
There’s another qualification in there that we don’t think about as much. People have to care enough about their country to do the hard work of decision making to begin with. Experts in politics analyze voter turnout, and ask questions like these:
~ What party benefits if turnout is good?
~ What does low turnout say about the state of our democracy?
~ Why should we care about voter turnout in the first place?
The key question is, what effect does turnout have on the quality of the decisions we make? In the past, people have said that high turnout with distorted or incomplete information is something we should avoid. It’s better to go with low turnout, and have good information in the hands of the people who do vote. Interesting as these thoughts are, they’re not so helpful when we truly want to influence the nature and the outcome of the fight.
Well, we can estimate voter turnout pretty accurately, but making judgments about the quality of information that’s available isn’t as easy as you might think. Let’s take the swift boat ads about John Kerry as an example. The people who run the ads say that Kerry doesn’t deserve his medals, and the people who served with him say that he fought with valor and courage. What are we to make of such a contradiction? How can we make a reliable judgment about his character if people can’t agree about the basics of his military record?
If we look into the issue, we learn that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aren’t all that concerned about what Kerry did in Vietnam. What they really care about is what he did after he returned to the United States. They don’t like it that he led a movement of veterans against the war. They don’t like it that he criticized his senior officers in public, or that he publicized the atrocious things American soldiers did to Vietnamese civilians. They don’t like it that he threw his medals away at an anti-war rally in Washington, and they certainly don’t see him as a war hero. It rankles them that he plays up his service as a naval officer, because they see his behavior after he returned from the war as traitorous. For them he’s a male Jane Fonda, and they show a picture of him sitting near Fonda at a Washington anti-war rally to prove it.
This simple example illustrates that it’s not so easy to separate facts from judgments. In fact, it’s not clear we should try. We have to decide what we think about active opposition to an ongoing war – what Kerry did when he came back from Vietnam – while we try to reach judgments about his character. We want to say that accurate information about the candidates will lead to a good choice on election day. More important than accuracy, though, is our ability to think clearly about the information we have. The campaigns are engaged in a great polemic, and we have to stand apart from them with good analytical tools. And then we have to vote, which means we have to participate in the fight.
So let’s take up an underlying issue in the discussion of Kerry’s war record: the question of whether it’s unpatriotic to oppose an ongoing war. The same issue applies to the war in Iraq, of course. I didn’t know what it was like to receive hate mail until I began to write about the current conflict. There’s nothing insipid about the mail I receive on this issue. But what do you make of the last message I received, where someone I know well compared me to Tokyo Rose? He wrote that if I had been similarly outspoken during World War II, I would have been thrown in jail.
Does that mean that public criticism of the war just isn’t permitted because it’s traitorous? How patriotic can it be to support a war that has already done so much harm to our reputation and our ability to lead, not to mention our security? Doesn’t everyone have an obligation to argue strongly about the merits of the case? It doesn’t seem right at all to cast the people on one side of the issue as patriots, and the people on the other side as traitors. Where will that lead? To look at this phenomenon another way: the people who oppose the war might reach severe judgments about those who favor it – but they don’t call them traitors.
Now we need to tie these thoughts about patriotism to the call for democratic participation. After all it’s patriotism – an inbred concern for the health of our country – that leads us to become involved in its affairs in the first place. We the people have to decide who will lead the country. If we don’t, other people who have their own interests at heart will decide for us. We ought to have faith that good judgment and devoted participation by people who care about their country will result in a good decision. It doesn’t matter if the quality of information in the candidates’ ads is contradictory, aggressive, and self-serving. Don’t expect a balanced presentation of facts in campaign ads! The only way to evaluate the claims we’ve encountered during this election season is to use our independent judgment.
During previous election campaigns, we heard all the reasons for not voting: (1) there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties, (2) I don’t like either candidate, so why should I give either one my support, (3) my vote doesn’t make a difference anyway, (4) the system is corrupt and I can’t do anything to change it. The close election in 2000, the September 11 attacks and the war in Iraq all make these defenses lame and irrelevant. It’s not cool to be detached and indifferent anymore. When you hear people say that this is the most important election in our history, believe it. The only election of comparable importance occurred in 1864. Then the southern states indicated they would leave the Union before they would tolerate an administration opposed to slavery. The voters sent Lincoln to the White House in a three way race. Many people sense that our future as a free nation depends on the choice we make when we vote on November 2. Their instinct is correct.
I won’t make an argument in this article about why you should vote one way or the other. The main purpose here is to persuade you it’s worth your time to vote next week. More than that, it’s worth your time to persuade other people to vote. Do what you can to remind people to participate in this great occasion – this remarkable event in our communal life. Send this article around to the people on your personal mailing list. You won’t receive any hate mail for doing it!
I remember a teacher of mine in graduate school who is both good natured and serious about democratic citizenship. He asked students on election day in 1984, “Did you vote?” He didn’t put people on the spot, but he sure left no doubt about what one’s civic duty required. He set a good example, and it’s an example we should follow now. We shouldn’t wait until next Tuesday to deliver our reminders, though. We should follow the lead of both parties, get ready for the occasion, and do what we can to let people know that their participation is needed. If we all get together and vote our true beliefs, we’ll have an outcome that is good for our country, and therefore good for us.
Above I referred to my writing on the war in Iraq. A week or so ago I published an expanded edition of my essay, Ugly War, which first came out in this journal last May. The new edition has maps, pictures, and a more readable format. To have a look at the new version, visit http://thelastjeffersonian.com/ugly_war.pdf. Please let me know if the file does not open for you. And please send the link for Ugly War to others who would like to read the essay, whether or not you think they agree with it.
I wrote the essay with the aim of persuading people to vote their hearts and minds on this critical issue of the war, and I do hope it does that. The more citizens who participate in this decision on November 2, the more we can live with the outcome, and the better our prospects as a free, secure, and respected nation.
Steven Greffenius is the author of The Last Jeffersonian: Ronald Reagan’s Dreams of America. To learn more about the book, please write firstname.lastname@example.org.