The 2008 presidential elections will be historic no matter the outcome. America will soon have its first African American president or woman vice president. Yet today America is immersed in a serious economic crisis, mired down in two wars and our global leadership is teetering. In short, this will be one of the most critical elections in this nation's glorious history.
Our founding fathers pointed to an enlightened citizenry as the best guarantee for a proper functioning republic. President Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked at our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree."
With so much at stake you would think that "the mass" of our electorate would be well informed about the candidates. Americans have vast sources of information available to them in an instant, anywhere and anytime. Yet it is still amazing how many still accept as gospel pernicious gossip they receive in the form of emails or leaflets. Worse, even after hearing the truth, some refuse to alter their views, probably because they have entrenched biases and profound ignorance.
Recently I found myself in a political conversation with support staff at a prominent financial institution. One of them, an immigrant from Easter Europe who is a naturalized citizen, declared, "I won't vote for Obama because he is not a U.S citizen."
"Where did you hear that?" I asked.
"I got an email, I get all these kind of emails," she said.
"He was born in Hawaii," I replied, "and if your charge was true McCain would have jumped on it long ago."
Earlier this week on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart presented a brilliantly unsettling report by correspondent John Oliver entitled "Labels," as in liberal and conservative. Oliver talked to people at both McCain and Obama rallies.
"He is a Muslim," said one McCain admirer of Obama, "it's part of his history."
Another offered this warning, "He's going to put a turban on and he's going to go in the White House and we're all going to be shocked." Well, Obama is a Christian, and so what if he was a Muslim?
A few days ago, I ran into some folks in the construction trades where talk of politics has become more prominent lately. "If Obama is elected president," one opined, "we are going to have terrorists in our country and America as we know it will be gone." This guy is an immigrant who has only known America for a few years.
Of course, with charges and counter-charges being thrown by both campaigns, some dirt may stick. And some people just want to believe what they want to believe. But many potential voters are simply not doing their part to make an informed decision based on relevant facts. You would think that, after the economy collapsed, health care and education are threatened and our military is stretched thin, voters would make some effort to learn the truth about the candidates.
To paraphrase Santayana, those who don't take time to learn history are condemned to repeat it. Better yet, President Thomas Jefferson warned, "No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity."