Every four years, at some point in the presidential campaign, one candidate says something that leads the other to accuse him (or her) of challenging his (or her) patriotism, and then we have a 48-hour spat over who called who unpatriotic, and then we go back to the usual political game in which talking heads viciously attack each other 24/7.
On the Fourth of July, we put on our flag pins or fly flags on our front lawns and celebrate the miracle of democracy.
Is Congress made up of a bunch of greedy fools? No. It is, in my experience, made up of men and women more talented than most, who end up playing a game that most of them did not dream of playing when they were growing up and dreaming of going to Washington, D.C.
Does the U.S. Supreme Court (whose popularity rating has reached an all-time low) comprise a bunch of political hacks who just cast their votes based on who put them there? Actually, no. They have very different views and ideologies, but these men and women work unbelievably hard to do what they believe is right, and while I fundamentally disagree with them some of the time, no serious student of the Supreme Court would ever agree with the more foolish criticisms hurled at the justices by folks who often know nothing about how the court works.
We take it for granted that our institutions are stable, or we would never dare abuse them as we do. If our right to vote were in jeopardy, we would vote. If the government really were corrupt, in the way the screamers suggest, we would come together and throw the bums out. We mostly reelect our members of Congress every two years (and I will regret greatly not being able to vote once again for my congressman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, who has been an amazing public servant) because most of them, when they aren’t stuck endlessly raising money or fighting off challenges, try to do what they think is best for their constituents and this country, however much you or I might disagree with their judgment on that.
That old saying about democracy being a terribly flawed system except that every other system is so much worse is true, and it is also true that we are the luckiest people in the world to be able to take as much for granted as we do.
But taking things for granted can go too far, and one day a year is not enough to right what has become an increasingly ugly tone to the political discourse in this country. The fact that we have the freedom to attack our leaders and institutions without risk of being arrested or censored does not mean anything should go in political discourse. The fact that the Internet allows people to say things anonymously that they would never dare say otherwise does not mean their words are not dangerous or destructive.
We are a great country facing difficult challenges, and we don’t all agree on the way to deal with them. But we agree on far more than we disagree on, and we share a fundamental love of country that should, at the end of the day, and does, when things get bad enough, transcend our differences. It is too bad it takes a disaster, or the Fourth of July, for us to call on that strength.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.