This is well to remember. So is Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked if the constitution would deliver a republic or a monarchy. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
If we put these two observations together, the question becomes: Can we, the American people, preserve our democratic republic if too many of us are easily fooled? This is not an academic matter. In fact, the issue will shortly be tested in a national election with epic implications.
One thing is certain. No people can resist the blandishments of demagogues if they do not first respect themselves. If they do not believe they deserve the truth — if they are not scandalized when denied it — they are destined to join the ranks of those who can be fooled all of the time.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden are apparently convinced they can keep up a pretense of being concerned citizens until Election Day. Yet they have clearly demonstrated they do not respect the intellect, or integrity, of the American people. So far as they are concerned, voters are the “suckers” P.T. Barnum said are born every minute.
Biden plainly revealed this lack of respect during his debate with Paul Ryan. Most observers recognized the contempt the vice-president heaped upon his challenger. All of that smirking, laughing, and interrupting bespoke a disregard for the deference owed a United States congressman.
What was worse, however, was the contempt for the American public this exposed. Ryan was treated like a recalcitrant schoolboy, whereas Biden acted like a bad-mannered teenager. His lack of decency was an insult to his position and to an audience that had a right to expect civility from the second-highest elected official in the land.
Sadly, president Obama learned little from this outrageous exhibition. Indeed, he decided to emulate it. Rather than respect his opponent or the public, he, in his second debate, engaged in a self-described “aggressiveness.” This too consisted in interrupting and calling his opponent a liar.
The lying, however, was one-sided — that is, on the president’s. Where Biden falsely claimed that the Catholic Church would not be forced to finance services that violated its faith and dishonestly maintained he was in the room when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill negotiated a social security accord, Obama broadcast his own deceits.
Despite rudely — and incorrectly — questioning Romney’s veracity, Barack told a string of whoppers. He, for instance, falsely denied that he had reduced the number of oil drilling licenses his administration issued. More importantly, he blatantly dissembled when he asserted that he had called the murder of an American ambassador an act of terror the day after it occurred.
The moderator Candy Crowley doubled down on this nonsense, but does anyone else believe it? The problem is that some do. True-believing liberals see only what they want to see; hence they are blind to inconvenient facts. Meanwhile, disengaged voters are not even paying attention; hence they have no idea about what is true.
We, as a society, are about undergo a trial by fire. It will soon be evident how many of us are prepared to be bamboozled. If too large a number decide to re-elect the president, we will be in for four more years of dishonesty and corruption. If not, we may re-discover what integrity looks like.
What happens depends on whether we respect the truth and ourselves — and our republic. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is needed for dishonesty and demagoguery to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.