It may or may not be true that this election is the most important one in living memory, as some of its more heated partisans have taken to declaring. What’s beyond doubt is that it has been the most passionate — and the nastiest. The divisions in our body politic have deepened to the point where opposing camps seem no longer to find each other’s views legitimate. This ought to worry us. We’re skating dangerously close to the point where our democracy is imperiled, not so much because of the positions of either party as because of our own deeply felt reactions to them.
On the surface, there’s nothing going on this year that hasn’t happened in countless election years past. Each side proclaims itself horrified by the other side’s positions and declares them to be a threat to the future of the Republic. And that’s as it should be. That’s how the game is played: Fight hard, play to win.
What’s different this year is that all too many partisans seem to believe their own apocalyptic rhetoric. This time it’s not just the professional hacks on each side proclaiming that the other side will bring ruin on Western civilization. Ordinary folks across the country are saying it in private, wringing their hands about the candidates they dislike and the strange creatures who support them — including, as often as not, their own friends and family. We’ve crossed a line from finding our political opponents’ views wrong, which is what we’re supposed to think in a democracy, to finding them incomprehensible.
It’s a fine point, but a critical one. Democracy depends, above all else, on the willingness of losers to lose and still believe that life will continue. The majority can’t rule if the minority won’t admit it has lost and move on.
This newspaper has made no secret of its criticisms of the Bush administration’s performance in a host of areas. We’ve used the word “catastrophic” to describe its fiscal policy, its unilateralist stance on the world stage and its conduct of the war on terror, and we stand by those assessments. We’ve also made it plain that we think President Bush is capable of better; we’ve called on him to search within himself for that better nature, and we’ve urged our fellow liberals to approach him in that spirit of openness. If the president wins a second term, we will keep it up. Our disagreements are deep and heartfelt. So are our hopes.
And if John Kerry is elected, he’ll hear from us, too. We’ll be watching closely to make sure that his commendable determination to restore American alliances in Europe doesn’t end up blinding him to the very real and threatening winds of anti-Israel and antisemitic bias blowing across that continent and around the world. We’ll be watching for any signs that he’s pandering to special interests and special pleaders or abandoning a clear moral vision in favor of the easy compromise. And we’ll be urging the liberal and progressive communities not to sit back and relax, as so many did during the Clinton years, but to use the years ahead as an opportunity to go back to the grass roots and reconnect with the American people.
Americans sorely need change next January, regardless of who enters the White House. They need a leadership that reaches across the divides and brings them together. They need policies that offer them and the world a hope of greater safety.
Most of all, though, Americans need to learn once again to believe in themselves, and in one another.