"Democracy is a device that ensures that we shall be governed no better than we deserve. Whose fault is it? ... It is the fault of you the people. Your public servants serve you right; indeed, often they serve you better than your apathy and indifference deserve."
Tough talk. No pol would say such a thing today. But Adlai Stevenson II said it some time after he had lost his second race for the presidency in 1956. So you can read those words as courageous or just bitter.
Me, I read them as true. How proud are we today of the congressional campaign that has just played out before our eyes?
How proud are we of campaigns based on deception, half-truths and outright lies?
If you live in a state that had a hot contest, I cannot believe your TV set still works. I cannot believe you have not rammed a lamp through the screen by now or ripped out your cable box and thrown it out the window.
I was in Iowa some weeks ago, and the ads on TV were distinguished by three things. They were nauseatingly negative; they were written at the intellectual level of a schoolyard taunt; and they were unworthy of a great nation.
They were also inescapable. They ran show after show, ad block after ad block, hour after hour, day after day.
And whatever outrage they were supposed to elicit from voters against a certain opponent, that outrage was so dulled by constant repetition that the ads served only to make anyone with an ounce of sense stop listening altogether. And stop participating in politics.
We get the campaigns we deserve. So I guess we deserve this one. Because we don't demand better.
America's turnout of registered voters in midterm elections usually ranks below the turnout in Malta, Chile, Austria, Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, Romania, Bulgaria, Israel and Poland, and I could go on and on.
But I think I understand why some Americans drop out and stop paying attention to politics. Their indignation has turned to disgust, and their disgust has frozen into apathy.
Personally, I am disgusted with the amount of money squandered on political campaigns.
In mid-2003, Rep. Dick Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, told me he spent seven to eight hours a day, seven days a week, making fundraising calls. I was so shocked that I asked him to repeat those numbers just to make sure I had heard him right.
I had heard him right. I was following him around as he was considering a serious run for the presidency, and no matter where he was — in the back of a car, waiting at an airport, sitting in a restaurant — he was always dialing for dollars.
An estimated $4 billion has been spent on this dismal congressional election, about $2.4 billion of it on political ads, many of which were so vitriolic it could turn one's stomach.
So if some citizens are now sick of politics, is it not the politicians who have made us so? More than 50 years has passed since Stevenson told us politicians serve us better than we deserve. In that 50 years, it is entirely possible the quality of politicians has deteriorated to the wilted crop we have today.
According to a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center, neither party was "especially popular with voters" heading into the midterms.
Only 39 percent of registered voters view the Republican Party favorably, while 55 percent view it unfavorably.
Just 47 percent view the Democratic Party favorably, and 48 percent view it unfavorably.
Both parties, in other words, spends billions of dollars on ads that turn people against both parties.
But important things are at stake, I read. Whichever party controls the Senate, I read, is of critical importance to the future of America, at least for the next two years.
I doubt it. Neither party is going to get 60 seats in the Senate, which means neither party can block a filibuster on its own. And neither party — or even a bipartisan group of disaffected legislators — can summon the two-thirds vote required in both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto.
I suspect that no matter who wins control of the Senate, the next two years will be pretty much like the past two years: paralysis interrupted by moments of crisis, which will be resolved by kicking the can down the road as far as it can be kicked.
Is it our fault? Yes, partly. We keep re-electing the same yahoos, expecting the results to be different.
But it is also the fault of the candidates. They believe enough money will buy enough attack ads to assure them a victory. So public service is reduced to gathering bucks to pay for the next empty campaign.
Adlai Stevenson thought about that, too.
"The hardest thing about any political campaign," he said, "is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning."
And this year, how many candidates proved themselves worthy?