BY RAFFI MELKONIAN
Like a lot of people this groggy post-election morning, I’ve really had enough of politics, and specifically of this campaign. Not much makes me nostalgic for the British version of democracy, but as our own campaign seems to have staggered towards its unsurprisingly turgid end, one has to admire a general election system which limits this unpleasantness to a few weeks every five years or so. In any case, as of Wednesday morning the President has won re-election. Though I’m pleased, I realize that most of my classmates disagree – I have no intention to gloat. Indeed, though I’m sure this is probably cold comfort for the Kerry supporters among us, I hope that at least some of their anguish can be salved by the fact that all this will be over soon, and we can finally get back to relatively news-less sanity, the normal cut and thrust of promoting and opposing the President. My initial sense, and the sense I feel from many these days, is that getting to the messy resolution we saw last night has taken far too long, and that it’s been rather too nasty along the way.
I think the fundamental problem underlying all this angst is that democracy just isn’t that great a system. We’d like to be ruled by unimpeachable men and women, driven by the common good, wise, judicious, fearsome when need be and merciful when able. We even want them to fit our image of noble leadership – no, I’m not suggesting that either Bush or Kerry is a sort of mythic Adonis, but I do think there’s a reason that someone like Cheney isn’t heading the Republican ticket, and it isn’t his politics. In fact, when it comes right down to it, I think we’d like to be ruled by someone like Aragorn, the King of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tall and noble, son of glorious Arathorn, descendant of gifted Numenorean blood, skilled in war, unstoppable in peace, endowed with the hands of a healer and blessed in life by God himself, even married to the vision of beautiful perfection. It would all be so obvious if Aragorn were here, we think – for who could stand against such pre-ordained greatness? And, in comparison, one can hardly fail to notice how far from the golden line of Numenor our own leaders have strayed – even as a Bush supporter, I have no illusions.
But the reason democracy is still the best solution to government is that Aragorn doesn’t exist. People in reality are nasty, brutish things, and the kind of people who want to lay their stained hands on the reins of power are often the worst of the lot. Even the heroes who we now remember as our own real-life Aragorns were chosen in this dirty, inconvenient way – Lincoln, for example, was called a “despot, liar, thief, braggart, and buffoon” by Harper’s Daily in his own time. The squabbling of our sainted founding fathers was hardly more dignified – the enmity between Federalists and Anti-federalists is famous, but I’ve recently read that Alexander Hamilton could hardly refer to Thomas Jefferson without also mentioning the devil. Democracy, even in America, has simply never been pleasant. And we shouldn’t want it to be pleasant. For one thing, the overblown rhetoric and anger, and wild claims made by so many participants in the electoral process, are a precious safety valve for tensions that might otherwise explode into violence. The stakes at play in a Presidential election are extraordinarily high, not least for the principals themselves. The most likely alternative to our current system isn’t a utopia of calm deliberation, but for the candidates to kill each other. I’ll take a few unkind words over a civil war any day. Furthermore, the fundamental policy argument in favor of essentially untrammeled free speech is that the vigorous exchange of ideas – false, true, inflammatory, and angry — is the only way for a flawed populace to eventually sort out an answer close to the truth. Even the most venomous accusations against a public figure can be helpful in the long run, since they remind right-minded opponents that their argument needs to be repeated, and strengthened, and paraded once again before the voters. When it comes right down to it, democracy as practiced in America has been startlingly successful, even with all its admittedly knobbly warts. I don’t think we need worry ourselves about it.
Unfortunately, that leaves us with seemingly interminable months of nastiness every election cycle, and no clear alternative. Rather than mope, or wait futilely for Aragorn, I think our only real choice is to sharpen our rhetorical knives and embrace the nastiness of American democracy as a proud symbol of its extraordinary vigor – a sort of prophylactic against the efforts of the inevitably unscrupulous to achieve the routinely venal. False as it is, go ahead and accuse President Bush of going to war for oil, or Senator Kerry of selling us out to the communists. Vent your anger, make your case as best you can, and then let’s trust the ability of mass democracy to make roughly the right decision. As far as I know, it’s our only choice.
Raffi Melkonian saw Lord of the Rings one too many times.