10/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Flattery

Way back when Athens was democracy's startup, voters were literally herded up a hill to listen to the great orators and to vote on policy. They listened, were moved, and made some stunning mistakes, like when they diverted resources from a war that mattered to mount an unnecessary foreign invasion. That one cost them their empire.

The brightest light in the Athenian Agora was pesky Socrates. He didn't make speeches. He thought rhetoric was a form of flattery designed to make us feel good rather than to educate us towards wise choices.

Smart guy. The politics of flattery still tests our souls.

Take the recent GOP convention. Like so many other Americans, I delighted in Sarah Palin's spunky debut--and I'm a Democrat. It felt great to be invited into her beautiful family and taken on a private tour of America's last great wilderness (dress a moose, race snow machines). And anyone who denies feeling deeply honored to be invited into Sen. McCain's private triumph over torture is lying.

It was all, well, flattering. First they brought us into the consultations about the direction of this great nation, asking us to ignore those mean spirited reporters and make our own judgment on the VP choice. Next they bared for us the private musing of their hearts. Then they told us what a great people we are. Who else is smart enough to expand health care while cutting costs? Only Americans like us have the talent and will save the planet from global environmental peril while we simultaneously drill, drill, drill for more oil. It's enough to make one stop thinking and start chanting "USA! USA!"

No wonder nearly 40 million Americans watched each of the big speeches. Sure, we are desperately serious about our democracy and unhappy with its present course. Democrats take note: our Republican friends are as disappointed with President Bush as we are, and may be even more eager to see him off the front pages. (Ask any Democrat in Illinois about the Democratic governor they fought so hard to keep and you will see that that loathing is sharpest when it's in the family.) But we've faced difficult times before without turning madly to these political set pieces.

More likely, people love the flattery and the false intimacy. And make no mistake, it is as false as the intimacy promised during a pole dance. Both parties claim the same faith, the same god, the same grace. Both parties want peace, security, prosperity, and fairness. Certainly none among us can judge any of the candidates' hearts on these matters. It is hard enough to know the thoughts and feelings of people you live with every day. We have no idea what's really motivating the pols we see choreographed on TV.

What we can know are the policies and programs they support, and we can make some judgments based on their records up to this point. We can use those judgments to help shape our future. It may not feel as good, but as voters it's our job.

And not all of it is that hard. Unlike the primary battles where candidates fought over the same ground, in this election the differences are clear. "Drill, baby, drill" won't lead to improved national security because it takes more than a decade to bring an oilfield online. We don't have sufficient reserves anyway, and it diverts our efforts from the goal of developing new, clean energy technologies. Abortion, privacy and choice make for a difficult policy discussion, but the candidates' positions on the issue are quite easy to understand: one side wants government to make the choice, the other wants the mother to decide.

The biggest question for Americans is not whether we like Barack or John, Sarah or Joe better. It is whether we have the character to recognize flattery when we hear it, and to stay focused on what matters.

Socrates thought it was better to study the ways of justice and to use what persuasive powers we have towards that end. They executed him.

We are Democracy's great second chance. Here's hoping Americans are not willing to be flattered into making sure there's a need for a third.