Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who are we?

It’s become almost a cliché to say this is going to be a watershed election. There was a point early on when we thought it would be yet another referendum on Iraq.  Change vs. experience dominated the Democratic Primary debate.  And then, underscored by the continued meltdown of financial institutions, rising gas prices, home forclosurs and unemployment, all eyes were turned to the economy.   All these issues, and hopefully some serious thought to the environment, will play in November.  But I have come to a different view of what’s a stake when we vote.  I think this election is about who we are.

That issue has been building in my mind since the early primary days when, despite all the problems we face, candidates in both parties were scrambling to establish their religious bone fides.  Sure, whether they were wearing that silly American flag pin became a bone of contention.  But what really seemed to be urgently important was whether they believed in God.  If that wasn’t enough, it was what kind of Christian they were – a Mormon kind, a secret Moslem kind, an Evangelical kind, a correct pastor kind.  What any of that has to do with managing our foreign policy, righting our economy or pulling us back from the brink of environmental disaster, I just can’t fathom.  Nor for that matter do I believe the Founding Fathers, their personal faith notwithstanding, had that in mind as a qualification for governance.

I think, however, the “who we are” issue, really came to a head when John McCain made his Vice Presidential selection.  To be sure, it said a lot about McCain, the once claimed straight talker, and what kind of President he might be, but the reaction to it said much more about the country.  Perhaps more accurately it said something about what this country may be.  There are some who have defended Governor Palin as a reflection of long cherished American populism.  The real America is in the small towns and on the back roads.  That’s the right training ground and source of our leadership, the oxygen of our democracy.  Nonsense. 

In truth it never was, even in less complicated times.  Sure some of our leaders have hailed from small places, but most were well educated (even when self-educated) and well informed, certainly by the time the contended for high office.  This is 2008, and its time to put aside romantic and mythical notions.  The reality of the America that has led the world is not the back roads, but the urban sprawl.  It’s not one-room schoolhouses, but the greatest universities in the world.  It’s not fishing, hunting or the local repair shop but getting to the moon and counting the genome.  All those people who have come to these shores, and still do, are not making the journey to sip a Coke in the old barn, but to stretch their minds and expand their opportunities.  The country we rely on is at the cutting edge of technology not the creator of American Idol.

Some will think it un-American to say these things.  Some will feel I’m living in an elite bubble, not in touch with the real world.  Nonsense.  It’s time we should stop pretending that we live in or aspire to a log cabin.  It is unseemly and disingenuous.  The problems facing the next President will be so enormous and the world in which we play so complicated that only a fool, or a foolish and suicidal electorate, would think we dare put the “D” team in place. 

I’m not sure American voters understand the stakes and for sure we’re not giving the candidates the opportunity to lay them out for us.  Perhaps a majority of them, even after these disastrous eight years will think Mr. Smith can still make it in Washington, which of course was never the case.  I hope not.  This election will be a test, a measure of who we are and how we see ourselves as a nation.  If it goes in the direction of mediocrity, we’ll pay a very high price.  I don’t think it will, but if so, many Americans will be dispirited.  I for one will be at the head of that pack.

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