Political leaders are expected to rise above mere party loyalties on questions of universal import. On issues affecting national well being, particularly national defense, they are expected to be statesmen. That is why John Kerry’s criticisms and attacks on national leadership and decisions in the midst of war were so jarring to a large segment of the American public. Along with his record and questions about the conditions of his discharge from the military, Kerry’s strident false charges and distortions were ignored by the media during the presidential campaign. His political rhetoric often disintegrated into demagoguery. Personal attacks and character assassination became routine. Without any regard for the welfare of our troops in the field, the level of political discourse sunk shamefully as winning-at-all-costs triumphed over any regard for the national interest.
Obviously, a pluralistic community will always have conflicting values and differing positions on issues. This is the price of democracy as well as a source of vitality and strength. But during the 2004 presidential campaign division and discord reached a “tipping point”– consensus disappeared under a barrage of scurrilous attacks. As a result, all of society suffered; the 2004 election campaign split the nation at an unprecedented level.
How did that happen?
One of the factors that unite a nation is its shared values – a universal understanding about such things as what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, good or bad. Philip Rieff, an author of the 1960s called these commonalities, “a system of moralizing demands.” In other words, “moralizing” is an integral aspect of a leader’s responsibilities, helping to shape the moral climate of a culture and keep the culture from disintegrating. Traditionally, leaders both embody those qualities admired by the public and restate those values necessary for society to be regenerated and renewed for contemporary times. In the absence of such leadership, the fabric of society begins to fray as crucial values cease to be reflected in the governmental and institutional processes.
Trust rightly became a top issue in the 2004 election. Americans asked: Who can we trust to keep us secure as a nation? Are we confident in the path we have taken up to this point?
The visceral appeal of George W. Bush to his constituency is his ability to embody the “moralizing demands” of today. The 2004 election was a decisive victory for morals, with states favoring by large majorities issues such as the sanctity of marriage. Many of those states endorsed President Bush as well. President Bush has gained the trust of a majority of the nation on crucial issues.
Likewise, the visceral hatred of those who despise those morals is the impetus for the “anybody but Bush” movement in this presidential campaign.
George W. Bush has taken a “moral” stand against terrorism by calling it “evil” and he has been unwavering in that stand against terrorism. He has been solidly pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-family. He has taken a reasoned approach to stem cell research — offering the proven miracles of adult stem cell technology rather than the empty promises and false hope of embryonic stem cell research. His character and integrity were portrayed in his respectful but realistic-some would say critical-assessment of his opponent, seen in both the presidential debates and on the campaign trail.
Adhering to the “moralizing demands” of leadership is especially important when the eyes of the world look on through 24-hour cable television coverage. People around the world develop an image of America and democracy from the words and actions that they observe in our political leaders. Given the politics of personal destruction that has come to characterize our political debates, why would the rest of the world respect what they see and hear?
America has never needed statesmen more — committed, determined, courageous souls who will embody and reinforce the universal “system of moralizing demands” that constitute a civil and thriving society.
The 2004 election was a time of reckoning for our nation. Would we ratify the actions of those who have rapaciously grasped for power by slash and burn divisiveness, or do we return to the moral rectitude and respect for one another which can heal the gaping wounds that have consumed our politics? It is an encouraging omen that we as a society through the electoral process have spoken to the priority of moral values and for those who will return them to the forefront. If we can successfully negotiate this corner-at this critical moment in our history, with new challenges and opportunities awaiting us-there is reason to hope that we can restore the dwindling trust in our government, both domestically and throughout the world.