The question raised by the 1972 movie “The Candidate,” starring Robert Redford, is whether winning a political campaign is worth compromising or even sacrificing your values.
That is the sort of question traditionally ignored in American politics, but it seems especially relevant to us now, in the aftermath of our latest divisive and discouraging Election Day.
Examples of political dishonesty and cynicism abound, and they implicate not only the candidates but the voters. Consider the cases of Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York’s 27th District, both of them re-elected Tuesday even though both have been indicted on felony charges and compelling evidence of their guilt has been put forward.
Collins is charged with engaging in insider trading in the stock of an Australian drug company, using knowledge he obtained as a congressman to warn relatives of the imminent collapse of the company’s stock.
Hunter is charged with running up a quarter-million dollars’ worth of charges on his campaign’s credit card. He tried the classy defense that it was really his wife’s fault.
Despite these performances, voters found them worthy to serve in one of the most important offices in the country. We can wonder what is wrong with these men who abuse the privilege of serving as representatives of the people, but what is wrong with us when we vote for them, knowing their character?
We saw several candidates who impressed us this election season, in particular Aaron Gladd, a Democrat running for the 43rd state Senate seat; Keith Wofford, a Republican running for state attorney general; and Marc Molinaro, a Republican running for governor.
They all displayed the intelligence, integrity and grasp of issues that we would hope for in a candidate. Unfortunately, they all lost, and this is nothing new — the better candidate has been losing at the polls, we’d guess, since colonial days, when candidates plied voters with “liquid cheer” to win their allegiance.
Many things affect elections. Money has an outsized and pernicious influence, and so does party loyalty. Too often, voters overrule their own common sense out of allegiance to a party and vote for someone unfit for the office. We have seen this on both sides — with Donald Trump, for example, and also with Andrew Cuomo.
We also allow political parties to make choices for us, when we cast ballots for candidates of our party whom we know nothing about. This is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens — an uninformed choice is worthless.
Some of the unfortunate aspects of American elections have been exacerbated by President Trump, although there is a hopeful note in the energy — for and against him — now coursing through the American public. We are heartened by the larger-than-usual turnout for the midterms and the greater engagement in political life evident across the country.
It may be, for those who feel that law and order and our political institutions are under attack, that this administration has been a necessary wake-up call. If our institutions are worth saving, it’s up to us to do it. The 2020 election is likely to generate even more interest, and perhaps we will emerge from that one with more hope for the future and unity as a country than we are feeling now.