Tonawanda News — From the amber waves of grain to the purple mountain majesties, I look over this country and find its fabric frayed.
After all that’s been said and all that’s been done over the last four years by our president, his critics and vox populi, I pose this question: Is America beautiful?
Our founding principles certainly are. But in this election — and over the last four years — have we, as a society, lived up to our creation story?
The answer is plainly no and we feel it in our gut.
The alternatives placed before us seem inadequate. We have a president who promised sweeping change. It sure doesn’t feel like he’s delivered it. We have a challenger who’s been seeking the job for six years now and no one seems to know what he’d do with it if he got it.
But here’s another question: Have we, as a society, gotten what we deserved?
Hardcore supporters of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seem to be falling back on this notion that the two men as candidates aren’t good representations of how they would be if elected. They believe if everyone could just see past all the media bias, anonymous attacks and the candidates’ own failings, everyone would agree their guy is the best.
But it doesn’t work that way. It shouldn’t work that way. What these men say matters. So, too, does it matter what informed and responsible journalists and commentators have to say. Unfortunately, the reality is the candidates and the commentators alike have failed the country and delivered an election decided by ginned up controversy, soundbites, vapid five-point plans and promises so void of meaning — where there have been promises made at all — Americans could be forgiven for tuning the whole thing out.
I choose my words carefully in that last part, though. Americans could be forgiven. We should not, though, be let off the hook.
The reality is the superficiality of this campaign mirrors the superficiality pervading our culture. We shun candidates who don’t hew to the party orthodoxy or the commonly accepted political tropes. He’ll cut Medicare! She’ll privatize Social Security! He apologized for America! Welfare is for leeches! He’s a socialist!
The winner of the election is whoever shouts these meaningless phrases at the highest decibal level. And as long as we voters continue to respond to these dog whistles with Pavlovian precision it’s going to continue.
As best I can tell, there are three kinds of voters and four kinds of Americans. The three kinds of voters are informed partisans, liberal or conservative, and stupid people who don’t know the difference between the two but have an opinion anyway. The fourth kind of American — and the vast majority of the population writ large — is comprised of people who simply don’t give a crap and couldn’t form an opinion if you made them.
We need a fifth group and we need it now. People in this fifth group might hew Democrat or Republican, but aren’t afraid to admit when their side is wrong. They are pragmatists who acknowledge problems and seek a third way to address them that isn’t born of partisan ideology and a generations-long struggle between left and right, but a non-ideological and fact-driven.
We need smart people who are perfectly entitled to their opinions but willing to set them aside when they don’t serve the larger purpose of running a country.
But this fifth estate can’t do it alone. It requires voters from both sides of the aisle — average Americans — to stop what they’re doing and ask the candidates they support a simple question: How can we fix this?
If your candidate for president, congress, city council or dog warden doesn’t have a good answer, one that makes sense to you, don’t vote for them.
I’ve got some soul searching of my own to do between now and Tuesday.
Mitt Romney does not, in my judgment, have a good answer. In fact, the detail-free campaign he’s run means he doesn’t really have much of an answer at all. A promise to “get the economy going again” isn’t enough when you never tell the people how you’re going to do it.
President Obama has been similarly light on details about his plans for the next four years. Given his record over the last four years, there’s substance for me to judge and it’s a mixed bag. Facing the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression he passed a pork-laden stimulus bill that yielded marginal results. He then pivoted to a health care fight that divided the nation and, though he won an important fight to extend health insurance to nearly all Americans, it came at the cost of three more years of even more bitterly divided government at a time when the nation desperately needed its president to bring everyone together.
I think the economy is improving, though I can’t say how much has to do with the president’s policies and how much of it is simply cyclical. Even doing nothing — which is essentially what Congress did this term — things were so bad they were bound to get better eventually.
I wonder if we’ll ever return to the kind of country this was in the 1990s, when growth seemed inevitable and the horizon was bright.
So here’s what I’m facing Tuesday: I will walk to the senior center at the corner of my street, smile at the friendly old black lady I see every year on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, sign my name in the book as I do have year, and take my ballot. I might sit down and color in the bubble next to Obama’s name. Or I might cast a vote in the other elections and leave the presidential slot blank. It’ll be a difficult decision.
The freedom our democracy permits is the envy of people in places far worse than here. It gives us everything and requires just one thing in return: our diligence in preserving it for generations to come.
If we want America to be beautiful again then we need to get serious about it, starting now.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com.Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.