During the next sixty days, everyone will argue as to what are the best criteria according to which to elect our next president and our other representatives. Part of the difficulty here, I think, is that our nation is a representative republic, and that's a form of government which seems to prove rather difficult for people to wrap their minds around.
Our country is a democracy in the sense that we all vote in order to pick our rulers. However, it is a republic in that once our rulers have been elected, they can do pretty much whatever they want (within the bounds of the constitution) for the duration of their time in office once we have elected them.
Where does this leave us as voters?
Some like to imagine that the US is actually a democracy, and immerse themselves in policy. "It's really all a matter of policies," such people say. "Character and culture are all very well, but the real question is what policies a candidate supports."
The policies a candidate chooses to support can certainly tell us a lot about the candidate's beliefs and priorities. But one does not have to look far to find contradictions and promises that seem unlikely to be kept. (Just what is the Democratic ticket's real position on free trade this year?)
Others are all too conscious of the fact they are electing rulers rather than enacting policies, and either become overly fixated on personality (electing someone they "can relate to" irrespective of that persons policies, wisdom or virtues) or else become completely paralyzed by the knowledge that one can "know" candidates for office at best imperfectly and that rulers can, once elected, behave as they choose rather than as we would like.
What are we to make of it all?
Though I'm rather fixated upon politics at times (what, did you notice?) I think that one must bring a rather pragmatic eye to such things. Due to my impression of human nature, and the experience that we can derive from history, I must think that it is a good thing that we are not a pure democracy, in which all decisions are made directly by the people. Democracy is often a rather flighty thing, and I suspect that we would be more poorly governed if our nation's policies changed as quickly as the opinion polls.
Yet at the same time, despite something of an elitist streak, I cannot reconcile myself to oligarchy or monarchy. (Though as a conservative, if I lived under them, I would doubtless make the best of it.) But really, such systems are generally only attractive to people who imagine themselves to be members of the small governing class -- or those with rather romantically inclined historical imaginations.
So while a system in which we elect our rulers based on limited knowledge of what they will do (and with limited ability to make them do as we wish, other than the threat of not voting for them again) it certainly seems to me better than any of the other options. And while it's true that we necessarily have imperfect knowledge when choosing who to vote for -- what of it? We have imperfect knowledge in all the decisions that we make. And so while it is our duty to make the best decisions that we can when selecting rulers, the fact remains that they are rulers, and as responsible for their actions as such as the unelected variety.