Contemplating the current presidential campaign has awakened reflections which recalled a remark of George Santayana 60 years ago when the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations were being hotly debated.
"The moral world," Santayana observed, "always contains undiscovered or thinly peopled continents open to those who are more attached to what might or should be than to what already is. Americans are eminently prophets; they apply morals to public affairs; they are impatient and enthusiastic."
Those numerous Americans who today are unhappy with both the two leading presidential candidates may not feel that the present campaign offers any serious moral choice or grounds for enthusiasm. Nevertheless, those of these discenchanted citizens who have turned to John Anderson are in fact displaying the American characteristics Santayana noted: a thaumaturgic application of morals to public affairs, an inpatience with conventional candidates who offer the same old nostrums, and an enthusiasm for a newcomer who seems to be charged with a strong, though ill-defined, and rather unsteady, moral current.
Likewise the Republican candidate represents primarily that wing of his party which has traditionally seen political issues in moral terms, which is enthusiastically prophetic about the conservatie millenium which would occur if free enterprise were unrestrained, government curbed, budget balanced, taxes cut , the communists outstripped in arms, rightesouness and rhetoric, women held to their proper station, speed limits lifted, and children dutifully commencing their days with prayer.
The weakness of these American characteristics, when they are applied in the political sphere, is that they too esily embrace utopian visions which politicians have conjured up and which have little relevance to the real world. When these visions fail, disillusionment and cynicism too easily follow, as when Woodrow Wilson was unable to make the world safe for democracy, Lyndon Johnson to contain communism in Vietnam, or Nixon, Ford, and Carter to achieve all-embracing detente with the Soviet Union.
President Carter himself reflected similar benevolent illusions in his attempt to apply American standards of human rights (not too consistently applied even at home) to foreign powers and potentates who had quite different ideas about how to stay in office, and whose support we often needed for security purposes. Not that standing up for human rights is not an admirable virtue, but that it is exportable only in modest doses.
As Dean Acheson once put it: "The important thing in thinking about international affairs is not to make moral judgments or apportion blame but to understand the nature of the forces which are at work as the foundation for thinking about what, if anything, can be done."
That prudent prescription applies to all the issues, foreign and domestic, being debated in the current political campaign. The important difference between the candidates is that one of them has actually been obliged to come to grips with the issues in cold, hard practice, while the other two, like Carter in 1976, can airily sound the high moral notes Americans love to hear, without paying much attention to "the nature of the forces" which will in most cases fundamentally circumscribe their action, if they come to be in a position to act.
What a relief it would be if presidential candidates would flatter the voters , not by appealing to their moral ardor or their prejudices, but by confiding in their good sense. If only candidates would have the courage frankly to say - we shall never be able to balance the budget as long as we maintain social expenditures, increase military expenditures, and cut taxes. Or would say -- we and our allies will remain utterly dependent for at least ten years on the vagaries of Middle Eastern politics unless we all, through much higher prices or through rationing, conserve oil and energy far more substantially than we are now doing. Or would say -- increased military expenditures by either the Soviets or ourselves will merely produce correspondingly increased expenditures on the other side, without the slightest increase in security for either; by far the best way both to maintain security and to balance budgets is by verifiable arms control agreements. Or would say -- the most effective way to encourage stability and oppose communism in the third world is not by mobilizing military forces to intervene there but by responding fare more generously than we have recently done to their pleas for assistance in development, freer trade, and more equal rights.
Of course, the President knows these facts and has even ventured to invite public attention to some of them. This is his great advantage, because if re-elected he could immediately divest himself of the electoral rhetoric in which he has felt obliged to indulge and return to thinking realistically about "what, if anything, can be done."
Messrs. Reagan and Anderson, on the other hand, having never sat in the Oval Office staring facts in the face, may actually believe some of the nonsense they are preaching and would require a year or two in office to be painfully disabused of it.
It is both a responsibility and a burden to lead, or to propose to lead, a people who, even inconsistently, "apply morals to public affairs." Morals without the balance of realism and sobriety are likely to be in public affairs deceptive and sometimes disastrous. This is a truth which unfortunately is more ofteh obfuscated than explained in our excruciatingly long, misleading, and superficial political campaigns.