Twenty years ago, I wrote a column based loosely on former President Jimmy Carter’s campaign statement that the United States deserves a government as good as its people.
He said that often as he campaigned for president. Sometime early in his one-term presidency, a small book was published that carried the same title. I always liked the quote. Watergate had just happened. President Nixon had resigned. Vice President Gerald Ford had replaced him and declared our long national nightmare was over. Carter came off the Georgia peanut farm to defeat Ford in 1976. I don’t know that his administration was as good as the people, but I think he tried.
I happened upon that column over the weekend. I wrote it sometime in 2001. I’m pretty sure it was before the terrorist attacks of that September 11. The column started this way: “Democracy is such a fragile thing I sometimes wonder how it survives the biennial beating we call campaigns. That it does is less a testament to the quality of the candidates than to the basic goodness of the people.’’
It never hurts a person to look back 20 years to what they thought and said, to see whether their expressions of opinion stood the test of time. As I read the 2001 column from the perspective of 2021, I find I still believe the basic goodness of the people of the United States is what continues to save democracy. It seems to me the words and antics of the candidates have only gotten worse and the beating democracy takes every election cycle has only intensified. It’s the goodness of the citizens that holds this fragile self-governing nation together.
I often worry that we’re hanging on by a thread. Sometimes, late at night or early in the morning, I nearly despair. I wonder what the future holds for my kids and their spouses, my five granddaughters and my four great-granddaughters. This is the closest I’ve come in my 77 years to worrying whether we can continue to function as a nation, and that includes the tempestuous, sometimes violent period of the Vietnam War.
In my column of 20 years ago, I quoted a college acquaintance, a thoughtful, learned government professor named Tom Patterson. He grew up in Minnesota, graduated from South Dakota State University and has been at Harvard University for decades now. In a book called “The Vanishing Voter,’’ he suggested that political campaigns no longer represent all of the people. “Voting is the least distorted activity.’’ I took that to mean that, in the end, citizens still make the process work.
I believe that was true in 2001. I wonder if it is as true today. Campaigns, along with social media postings, political debates and everyday discourse, no longer focus on what a candidate believes. The campaigns these days – and it’s been happening, gradually, more and more for years, I’m sure – are too often about picking fights, driving wedges between citizens, convincing people they are being mistreated, making them afraid and giving them someone to blame, someone to hate. Effective as it can be, it isn’t healthy, not for citizens and not for democracy.
When I wrote in 2001, I couldn’t conceive that we’d become a country where facts sometimes – too often – are ignored. I knew campaigns and politicians, and people, too, sometimes distorted the truth, shaded the facts. It never occurred to me that we could have public discourse in which people argued from different worlds of facts. The guy who said people can have their own opinions but not their own facts? He wouldn’t recognize things today. Many people believe their opinions are facts and their online surfing is superior to the lifetime of study and experience of someone else.
In a recent book, “Informing the News,’’ Patterson quotes Walter Lippmann: “Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people which is denied access to the facts.’’
I don’t think we’re denied access. I think many of us ignore the opportunity to learn the facts. And without allegiance to facts, I worry if the basic goodness of the people is enough.