Since 1960, more and more Americans have been voting with their backsides by sitting at home on Election Day. Could it be because presidential campaigns have descended into grubby vote-buying contests?
In the Kennedy-Nixon race, almost 63 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. In 1996, only 49 percent bothered to vote. A majority of Americans who could vote didn’t think it was worth the effort to exercise a right achieved over centuries, at considerable cost in human lives.
Besides cynicism over politicians who develop amnesia regarding their campaign promises, disenchantment with politics is due to the degeneration of campaigns. Gone are appeals to sacrifice, calls for responsibility and reminders of civic obligations.
In the 2000 campaign, Gov. George W. Bush says he wants to cut your taxes, give you more options in saving for your retirement and rescue education. Vice President Al Gore promises to provide cheaper prescription drugs for seniors and lower the cost of heating oil. Oh, and he’ll save education, too — not to mention the planet.
“What will you do for me?” a young lady asked Bush on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The governor explained that he wants to reduce her tax burden so she’ll have more disposable income.
The correct response would have been: “My dear, this election isn’t just about you. It’s about all of us and something much greater called America.”
Of course, it’s easier to call for sacrifice in times of crisis. When Winston Churchill said he had nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears, the German army was just across the English Channel.
And yet, when John F. Kennedy urged: “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” America was at peace and enjoying a postwar boom destined to last another dozen years.
Still, Americans took that counsel to heart. Kennedy went on to create such vehicles for national service as the Peace Corps and Vista. Those who can’t remember another thing JFK said, recall the stirring appeal in his inaugural address.
Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan, who had more in common with Kennedy than historians like to admit, echoed that message.
In his first inaugural address, Reagan quoted the Revolutionary leader Dr. Joseph Warren: “Our country is in danger but not to be despaired of. … On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
To this Reagan added, “I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.” He was speaking to the duties of citizenship and our responsibility to posterity.
In America today, are there no national crises, no common dangers, no reasons to sound the alarm?
Our prosperity is unprecedented. But while the table is loaded, there is a spiritual hunger in the land.
Never before have we been as divided along racial/ethnic lines. Our nation is suffering an identity crisis. Fewer and fewer of us know what America means, understand that we were founded on an ideal and grew to greatness adhering to a vision.
One in four children conceived in America is aborted. Of the rest, almost one-third is born out-of-wedlock. Slightly over 20 percent of teens are current drug users. As many as one in three high-school graduates are functionally illiterate.
Immorality is rampant. Human life is devalued. There is a pervasive sickness in our culture, epitomized by a soul-dead entertainment industry.
We are on a collision course with the People’s Republic of China. The most populous nation on earth, with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, China is acting like Germany in the 1930s. We face this threat with a hollow, demoralized military.
If articulated, the above would make calls to sacrifice more than credible.
The most revered politicians of this century are the ones who challenged us (from Teddy Roosevelt to Reagan), not the ones who coddled us. This may make the current contenders footnotes in future history books, regardless of who wins the election.