Partisan fervor is strong. How strong is hard to say. Candidates' advertisements aren't a good measure. Neither are news headlines. E-mail pass-arounds are the choir preaching to itself. Most people have made up their minds. Campaigns focus on undecided voters in a few key states, who could be fence-sitters, uninterested or discouraged. Hard to say.
Neither campaign seems wedded to truth-telling. We can expect more "shocking revelations" to be lobbed over the barricade. Nastiness, already high, will escalate.
Having just read another history of the United States, I realize that solid presidential timber has been a rarity. Since the founding few, we have had perhaps four capable presidents, the most recent being Harry Truman. Incompetence has been the rule. Catering to the super-rich has been the rule. Appealing to base emotions has been the rule. Hiding true intentions has been the rule. Maneuvering behind the scenes to claim the spoils and to impose ideology as a substitute for effective governance has been the rule.
A reflective person who saw the nuances of actual circumstance wouldn't stand a chance. Demagogues, race-baiters, class-warriors and airy proclaimers of soothing assurances tend to fare better in national politics.
Too serious to ignore
Is it that bad? No, it is probably worse. Some truly dangerous people attach themselves to government. This is nothing new - read about the 19th Century - but the stakes keep getting higher. As government's role expands and the world grows more complicated, the cost of incompetence exceeds our capacity to shrug it off.
I think that is what binds us in the electorate - a sense that the stakes are high and we are stuck. We come down on different sides, of course, some considering George Bush the worst president since Herbert Hoover, some considering the incumbent a decent leader and John Kerry an uninspiring alternative, and many wondering why a nation so large, prosperous and educated cannot produce better candidates than these.
I have two hopes for the coming election. First, I hope it will be a fair election. The last was tainted. We cannot stand another like it. We need to know that all citizens who wanted to vote were allowed to vote, that all votes were counted, and that what is revealed the morning after is a fair representation of the people's will, not a power grab. I think we can accept any outcome, as long as it is fair.
Second, I hope that we listen to each other, both now and after election day. Whatever politicians are saying, I hope we listen to the stirrings and yearnings around us. Our frustrations and doubts won't be resolved on Nov. 2, whatever its outcome. The political system will have a winner and abundant gloating, a loser and abundant blaming, and maneuvering in the corridors of power. We the people will be left with a war, a weak economy, aggressive terrorism and a confusing world.
We will be left with each other. Government won't unite us. We need to unite ourselves. We need to find the magnanimity, compassion and wisdom that it takes to forge community out of anger and angst.
This should be the faith community's hour. Politicians have tried to co-opt religion for this campaign, and many religious leaders have gone along, sensing an edge in denominational competition. It is time for that to end.
Our place, as always, is on the margins, not cozying up to the powerful. Our mission is to speak words of love to the unloved, hope to the hopeless, discomfort to the comfortable and wisdom to fools, not to impose dogma on the commonwealth. It is time for us to stop fighting about sex, to teach compassion and self-denial, and to tend to the larger needs of a worried and divided nation.
To do that we need to listen to actual people, not to convenient stereotypes.
Tom Ehrich, a writer and Episcopal priest, lives in Durham.