We vote for a candidate based on what he tells us about ourselves. We look for the best among us, and we seek to elevate him as our exemplar. In this way, we treat the candidate like a reflection of ourselves.
He is our best hope for ourselves but has also the flaws we can tolerate. The best of them inspires us to better ourselves, to “ask not” but also to allow us to smile impishly at his — and thus our — outsized flaws. For inspiration, think of Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, JFK’s first inaugural address, FDR’s Four Freedoms. For a good laugh at our expense, consider Reagan’s love of jellybeans, Clinton’s love of fast food, Gerald Ford’s public clumsiness. He is great, but he is also human. Like us.
We also look for a president whose narrative of the American experience is altogether positive and uplifting. We like to hear about our forefathers, depicted without warts — the great men they were and the great men we too can become.
We look to the president as the representative of our country’s highest ideals. Though this tradition dates back to Washington, these ideals have changed constantly since then. And these ideals are different among different peoples. But one thing is certain: National candidates reflect the best of this nation, as agreed upon by segments of our population.
We shower candidates we love with affection which is in due course reciprocated by the candidate. Although to say it this way implies a causality that may not exist. Suffice it to say that candidates for national office achieve national exposure because of the reflection that local citizens saw and liked in the candidate. To be sure, different regions view this nation in different ways. Different people have different understandings of this nation’s highest ideals and have had arguments over what was won at the Revolution since before the end of the siege of Yorktown. But one thing is certain: National candidates reflect the best of this nation based on how a group of people have defined that ideal. This is true of the candidates in this election cycle. Barack Obama’s presence on a national ticket tells us that we want to move past our racial divide. We aspire to be part of a nation that lives up to its Declaration.
And let us not discredit his other values: his inclusiveness, his desire to move beyond the Culture Wars rhetoric of the 1990s, his optimism, his humor and his seriousness. There is something there. And John McCain is the soldier we hope is buried deep within ourselves, able to endure years of torture for country. His passion is our passion. His time in the Senate is a story of passing legislation, not selling his office. It should not surprise us that both of this year’s candidates are emblematic of our desire to move past partisan gridlock.
In addition to the semi-biographical, we consider both candidates’ views of the American story. For both Obama and McCain, the American people are a good people who inhabit a great nation. McCain speaks more often of our freedoms won through military victories; Obama speaks more often of our nation’s opportunities. One emphasizes liberty, the other equality. These values have been in competition through our nation’s history, further demonstrating my point: The candidates and the citizens are as similar to candidates and citizens in previous presidential elections as any of them are similar to each other. This pattern of reflection and affection with respect for the American people is as alive as ever.
But this is not a feeling held in strong favor here at Yale. I have been in political science and history seminars, and I have attended debates and discussions on campus. And I have witnessed the low regard held for our fellow citizens by my fellow students. We use derogatory words unthinkingly. We make fun of their mannerisms. We reject their values. We call them “the masses.”
I, for one, resent it when a future leader of this country refers to you and me as “the masses.” This is a term we haven’t applied to ourselves in America. And I fear the type of voter, citizen and elected official a person with such contempt might become. It is not in keeping with the American tradition.
America is nothing but the citizens who have and will inhabit her shores and the ideals for which she stands. For some at Yale, to reject the people is to reject the ideal. To reject the ideal is to reject the promise. And to reject the promise is to forfeit what was won at the Revolution.
The debate at Yale should not be between two candidates. That battle was won before it was fought. We should now, in the time between now and inauguration, figure out who we are as a people. Both Obama and McCain agree about this. Why shouldn’t we?
Adam Lior Hirst is a junior in Branford College.