Last night I happened to catch Sarah's arrival in Fairbanks, Alaska - covered with breathless expectation by CNN (has there ever been a VICE-Presidential candidate whose arrival by plane has been awaited with such expectation?). She gave what appeared to be an extemporaneous talk (maybe - there were teleprompters, of course) in which she gushed enthusiasm to be back in Alaska, spoke fervently about electing McCain, and used a few lines from "the Speech" now with less freshness. The one policy area she DID talk about was energy: namely, that a McCain administration would pursue nuclear (ah me, she actually said Nucylar, I think), renewable energy, and yes, would "drill, baby, drill." She did have the virtue of arguing that increasing domestic sources was a matter of national security, a point that should be stressed constantly in the shadow of several wars we have fought in recent years in the Middle East.
It was a brief appearance, but what struck me was here, on the eve of the attacks of 9/11, there was no actual mention of sacrifice that such a vital matter of national security might require from the American people. She - no more than McCain - has mentioned, much less stressed, the word sacrifice with any regularity. Coming out of a convention devoted to the theme "country first," what little policy tidbits we are now being fed by the Republicans is that we don't have to change our behavior one single bit. In spite of being in a war - a war that was started as a result of attacks on our mainland seven years ago today - not once has the current President, nor the current candidates, in any real way called on the American citizenry for sacrifice. We were told in the days after 9/11 that we should go shopping, and we are still effectively told the same thing today. Both candidates are running on an economic program that stresses tax cuts and magical energy solutions that will require no change in behavior on our parts. Neither can find the nerve to highlight the word "conservation." Both fear calling forth the better angels of the American electorate's nature, suspecting - perhaps correctly - that a generation of pandering Presidents (beginning with Ronald Reagan, I dare say, who taunted Jimmy Carter's call for conservation) has allowed to atrophy.
I have written of an encounter with Senator Obama in which he spoke with rhetorical brilliance about the need for sacrifice, but in fact called for none. I do not see any particular change in this basic fact in subsequent months. Senator McCain has run his campaign on the example of his own great sacrifice - no one can doubt he made extraordinary sacrifices for his nation, evident every time he raises his arms only to his shoulders - yet, an example he has not momentarily suggested that the American people might consider emulating, even if in the smallest way.
Democracy was classically understood to be a form of governance that called upon great reservoirs of self-governance. For this reason Montesquieu considered democracy to be the regime, above all, based upon virtue. Modern democracy, by contrast, is premised upon a philosophy that understands human motivations to be exclusively based on self-interest. Tocqueville observed in the 1830s that Americans speak constantly about self-interest, but that in fact they acted often out of altruism - thus, he wrote discerningly, they "do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves." The absence of any sustained or noteworthy call for sacrifice by either of our candidates suggests that we have tended, over time, to conform our actions to our words. Even a candidate whose life of sacrifice is exemplary and whose campaign motto is "Country First" can't bring himself to call for restraint and virtue from his countrymen. All the candidates rightly praise our military men and women, but in a society of severe subdivision of labor, we place upon them alone the burden of self-sacrifice while we change our behaviors not a jot. Members of our military protect our access to Middle East oil so that we can continue to shop. 9/11 was a terrible day, but perhaps what has been most terrible is the opportunity that was missed to call upon the willing reservoirs of sacrifice that was exhibited by the entire citizenry in the days that followed those attacks, and instead was allowed to fall back into the torpor induced by "Leaders" whose motto is more likely and honestly to be "drill, baby, drill" than "Country First."