This clamorous and alarming election campaign, which should inspire and mobilize -- on both sides -- all that America has to offer in the way of political courage, open-mindedness and vision for a bright future . . . well, I must sadly admit that it disappoints and depresses me.
Has it always been this way? Have we always had adversaries hurling insults at each other rather than allowing debate and analysis to influence undecided voters? Should we be afraid to trust the public to comprehend the issues in depth? One could almost say that the goal is not to inspire but to incite, not to inform but to dumb down.
I'm not talking about the candidates themselves. I have deep esteem for one and great respect for the other. They represent two political ideologies, two philosophies for this society, and each of us is free to choose the one with whom we identify.
But why the disagreeable, offensive tone that emanates from this event?
I've been living in this magnificent democracy since 1956. As a foreign correspondent for some time, I had the opportunity to watch the two parties campaign in a number of presidential races: John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater, Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford. I have watched the elections of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
In every case, the supporters and spokesmen of both the incumbent and the opposition expressed themselves with ardor, conviction and dedication.
But never with such violence as we see today.
Too many Democrats feel hatred -- yes, hatred -- for President Bush, and too many Republicans fail to hide their contempt for Sen. John Kerry. These two sentiments should be excluded during electoral contests.
Once upon a time, politics was a noble pursuit. Working for the polis, the city, the republic or the community signified a desire to give back what one had received. One had to be worthy of this honor. And many leaders were.
Nowadays the word "politics" evokes at best a contemptuous smile. We usually say it with a smirk. We instinctively suspect politicians of every sin, of any kind of scheme, of all sorts of manipulation. We consider them somewhat deceitful, a bit hypocritical, more than a little egotistical and certainly consumed with ambition. We watch them as though we expect to surprise them at any moment in flagrante delicto.
But politics is like money or love: Everything depends on what you make of it. For some, it's a matter of arrogance and power. For others it's more of a passion for justice, sacrifice and generosity.
Why this need, among people on both sides, to let the discussion be dominated by nastiness and ugliness? And why don't they listen to the voices calling for an end to this slide into the gutter? Do we care about what our children think as they watch this on television? What are they to make of the exchanges, insults and attacks among politicians? Why, once they finish school, should they choose public service, which not so long ago was a praiseworthy endeavor?
Of course political campaigns in the past had their share of verbal onslaughts, unfortunate remarks, and regrettable, simple and even crude comments. Politicians talk a lot, often too much; they say things that they later regret. But these were the exceptions, not the rule. Abiding by unwritten laws, the candidates and their colleagues sought to appeal to all that was decent, civilized and cultured in their rivals, and not to that which made them ugly.
We don't ask that they be prophetic orators, linguistic goldsmiths or inspired moralists; we simply ask that they not take voters to be ignorant or barely civilized. Why do they address us as though we are children or dimwits? To get us to reject this or that candidate and his political positions, it would suffice to show us their flaws and weaknesses. Why, in personalizing the conflict, do they try to shame one another? For that matter, why do they all but deny the past of one candidate and negate the honor of the other?
This presidential campaign is full of verbal violence. In fact, it's bursting with it. Instead of elevating the debate, this campaign is debasing it. Instead of examining the serious problems of a society in crisis, it's treating them in a superficial way. Rather than comparing one philosophical doctrine with its counterpart, the campaigns are succumbing to propaganda -- propaganda that is striking for its excessive anger and its lack of elegance, generosity and even simple courtesy.
Nonetheless, the two candidates are right to call this election one of the most, perhaps even the most, important in recent American history. What's at stake is more than the victory of one party, and even more than the resolution of the situation in Iraq. What's at stake is the kind of world that will be shaped by the vote of the American people in November.
So many questions await their response, so many wounds must be healed, so much anguish weighs upon humanity. The whole world agrees that international terrorism represents a mortal menace for many countries and cultures. How do we proceed to uncover it, isolate it and conquer it? How do we understand its roots? Is poverty the cause? Is it nationalist or religious fanaticism?
America is waiting for an authentic and superior national debate on all these points.
How long must we wait?
The writer is a humanities professor at Boston University. This article was translated from French by Zofia Smardz.