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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

America is at its best when it's good 

Thomas Jefferson, memorialized in a monument in Washington,

Thomas Jefferson, memorialized in a monument in Washington, D.C., wrote: "No society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation." Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Mark Tenally

Drawn in by the romance of history books and the origin story of our own extraordinary nation, it can be easy for us to imagine the Founding Fathers’ work as starry-eyed idealism: They believed in Democracy. They believed people, or at least white men, were wise, kind and level-headed, courageous, and fair and sensible enough to chart the course of a society themselves, at the ballot box, by voting for representatives who would then vote for laws.

But the architects of our national government didn’t believe in mythically kind and wise voters, or at least many of them didn’t. If they had, these designers of America wouldn’t have thought we needed a Constitution, the subtitle of which could be "A List of Things the Majority and the Leaders it Elects Cannot Do Even if Almost Everybody Wants to Except a Couple of Eyebrow-Pierced Commies!"

The discussion, which I like to imagine happening at 3 a.m. in a tavern where the mead has flowed freely, would have gone something like:

Founding Father 1: "Let the good yeomen farmers of this land determine its course and they will make the bell of freedom ring eternally! They will never let you down!"

Founding Father 2: "Informal polls show 80% of them would gladly vote to outlaw at least one of the following: Catholicism, Judaism, owning guns, not owning guns, public schools, private schools, books that mention womens’ calf muscles ‘in a knowing way,’ liquor, marijuana, taxes, Tarot card readings, dice-playing, dancing, amassing more wealth than you can spend in a lifetime, and calling any stew with beans in it ‘chili.’ And that’s just the beginning."

Founding Father 1: "Well, I think they’re right about the chili, but dicing and poems about firm calves are pretty much what freedom means to me. How about we do democracy, but with careful ground rules designed to protect freedom!"

The combination was brilliant, and has given us nearly to 250 years of generally expanding prosperity and freedom. But its success also relied on a third, rarely discussed ingredient, one that Thomas Jefferson hinted at in 1789 when he wrote to James Madison "No society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation."

For our nation to pursue and embody fairness, courage, kindness, freedom, nobility, honesty, dignity, charitability, and the protection of rights both popular and unpopular, the people of the United States have to treasure these things and want them at the center of our society and government. A nation cannot be better than its people.

As the United States prepares for a presidential debate Tuesday night and a direction-defining election five Tuesdays hence, the debate we are having is not really about whether tax rates should be a few points higher, or who has the best plan to rebuild our roads, schools or our reputation on the world stage.

It is about values, and what could be our very last chance to keep our country clinging, however precariously, to the path of our better angels.

Alexis de Tocqueville is often (wrongly) credited with having written "America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

It’s true, regardless of who first said it. The way to "Make America Great Again" is by helping it to be good again. That’s what it feels like we’ve lost now that must be restored.

That’s what I’ll be judging candidates on in Tuesday’s debate.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.