Most years, writing a column that is due on October 15 for an issue cover-dated December, which will go to press six days before a general election but appear in subscribers’ mailboxes and on newsstands about two weeks after, would be a recipe for frustration.

This year, it strikes me as an opportunity.

I have never had a dog in this presidential election.  That has been true for a long time; the first time I voted in a presidential election was in 1988, and that was the last time I voted for a major-party candidate.  By the time President George H.W. Bush had proved himself “worse than unimaginative—merely silly, often” (as Russell Kirk wrote in his memoir, The Sword of Imagination), I had come to regret my folly.

In 1992, if I could have been bothered to go through the hassle of registering to vote in Washington, D.C. (where I was pursuing my graduate studies), I would have cast my ballot for Ross Perot (though if Perot, the only presidential candidate in recent memory who could make John McCain look stable, had had any chance of winning, I probably would have abstained).

In 1996, 2000, and 2004, I voted for third-party candidates: Ralph Nader in the first and last; Pat Buchanan in between.  And (as I write) with 20 days left before November 4, I still have not decided which third-party candidate to waste my vote on.  (Since, in his current run, Ralph Nader has explicitly endorsed both abortion and homosexual “marriage,” I will not be able to mark the ballot for him even as a protest vote.)

Thus, with each election cycle for the past 20 years, I have come closer, one might say, to practicing the supposedly dispassionate political science that I studied as an undergraduate.  And I have come to view the behavior of most voters—at least, most avowedly partisan voters—as something akin to mental illness.

This is not exactly an original thought, though most who have entertained it speak of “cognitive dissonance” or compare voter loyalty to people’s irrational (used in a nonpejorative sense) attachment to a sports team, or even to their families.

But as I look at the increasingly irrational (used pejoratively now) behavior of many partisan voters, I think that a more pointed label, such as mental illness (or perhaps schizophrenia or merely insanity), is called for.

It is not simply that, say, McCain voters so easily accept the claim that Barack Obama wanted to abandon U.S. soldiers in Iraq when he voted against continued funding of the war, provided that the bill was not tied to a timeline for withdrawal, yet seem unable to process the fact that John McCain (as Joe Biden rightly pointed out in the vice-presidential debate) also voted against continued funding, when it was tied to a timeline.

In other words, the disagreement between the two candidates was over setting a timeline for withdrawal, not over continued funding of the war.  Yet many McCain voters seemed unable to see it—just as many Obama voters who oppose the war have taken Obama’s vote as evidence that he will end the war tout de suite upon taking the presidential oath of office.  (And yes, he will do it in French, and correct French too, dammit, because that’s just the kind of cosmopolite homme he is!)

No, the inability to discern the real issue at stake in such disagreements between the candidates is not the sign of mental illness.  It is the willingness—or, perhaps more accurately, the determination or even eagerness—of otherwise decent people to let such disagreements (and mistaken disagreements at that) tear apart families and friends.

Up through my teen years, my father’s family (those who still lived in West Michigan) would gather almost every Sunday at my grandparents’ house for dinner.  Before the mashed potatoes had made a complete circuit of the massive dining-room table, the political arguments would begin.  And, especially in an election year, they would become quite heated, to the point where a look of fear or panic might even begin to creep into the eyes of the women and young children.

My grandfather and his second-eldest son were devout Democrats; my father was a Republican; my youngest uncle was a conservative turned increasingly libertarian.  (At holidays or during the summer when relatives came to visit from Indiana, other political shades were thrown into the mix, new alliances were formed, and the political tides would turn in different directions.)  The debates would rage throughout dinner, pausing only for my grandfather to complain that “that woman” (my grandmother, seated at the other end of the table) had once again given him the only slice of cherry pie with a pit in it.

At some point, long after dinner concluded and the men and boys had retired to the living room to play euchre while the women and girls cleared the table and washed the dishes, the argument would finally draw to a close.  Depending on the topic being debated at that point, my grandfather might pull out this splendid non sequitur that he wielded as if it were the right bower: “The only Republican I ever voted for was Richard Nixon, and look what they did to him!”

I shudder to think how many years these weekly increases in blood pressure stripped off of the back ends of the lives of people I loved.  My grandfather, who died in February 1992, might still be alive today had dinner-table conversation never strayed from the weather.

And yet, every week, we assembled at the same table again.  The conversation might pick up where it had left off (“Speaking of Richard Nixon . . . ”), but at least it continued.

Two decades later, I know of dozens of families where the conversation has stopped.  I have had people tell me during this election cycle that they are glad that they have moved away from their families and no longer have to see them, because they cannot put up with the things that their fathers say about Barack Obama, or the e-mails that their sisters-in-law forward them making fun of Sarah Palin.

Maybe, when it all comes to an end, these families will sit down together for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, bow their heads in prayer, and recognize, even for just one brief moment, that being a part of a family is far more important than being just one of 120 million votes cast for John McCain or Barack Obama.

Maybe, but I doubt it.  I know people who are still not talking because “You Republicans stole the election from Al Gore” or “You Democrats wanted to pull out of Iraq and surrender to the terrorists.”  The unreality of national politics, including the distortions and outright lies that candidates tell about each other, have somehow become more real to them than their own flesh and blood.

What is grasping at phantasms while rebelling against reality if not mental illness?

As if on cue, I have just received an e-mail from my colleague Chris Check with a link to a FOX News story from October 14 headlined “Father Secretly Names Newborn Sarah McCain Palin.”  The five short paragraphs read like something out of The Onion: Mark Ciptak “said he named his third child after John McCain and Sarah Palin  ‘to get the word out’ about the campaign.”  That makes perfect sense: After all, how would the Republican presidential ticket receive enough publicity in these final weeks of the campaign unless a father named his daughter after the candidates rather than, say, after his mother or grandmothers?

“‘I took one for the cause,’ he said.”  (No, in fact, his newborn daughter did, and she had no choice in the matter.)  “‘I can’t give a lot of financial support for the (McCain/Palin) campaign.  I do have a sign up in my yard, but I can do very little.’”

Even more astounding, however, is Mr. Ciptak’s revelation that he took this action against the wishes of his wife, who wanted to name the girl Ava Grace.  “I don’t think she believes me yet . . . It’s going to take some more convincing.”

FOX News, of course, shows no interest whatsoever in what might happen to the Ciptaks’ marriage and their three children if he fails to convince his wife that the deception was worth it.  But why should they?  Were the Cip­taks to wind up in divorce court, the result might be two households in which FOX News is on the TV 24/7, rather than just one.

Politics today is big business—not just for the politicians, but for the news media.  For all the talk about the “need to unite” and “to come together as a nation,” politicians and the media profit from division—not simply at the national level every four or two years, but every day, among families and neighborhoods and churches.

At this point, you might expect me to say that it doesn’t have to be this way, that a more civilized discourse is possible, that as a nation we can return to the heated debates around my grandparents’ dining-room table.  But I don’t think we can.  This destruction of everything that matters in life is the logical end of modern democratic politics, which is built on removing all that stands between the “individual” and the state.

Despite our political differences, my family continued to gather around my grandparents’ table because we were a family, and that is what has changed.  Modern politics has accelerated the destruction of families, but the destruction of families has also helped make modern politics into a form of mental illness.

One sunny but cool day in early fall, during the first year or two of the George H.W. Bush administration, I drove out to visit my grandparents before heading off to graduate school.  As my grandfather and I sat in the front yard, our conversation trailed off.  Then, unexpectedly, Grandpa told me that he thought that the President was doing a pretty good job so far.

“That’s the problem,” I said.  “People like you are happy with what he’s doing.”

I simply meant that I could understand why a lifelong Democrat was more pleased with the Bush administration than a budding paleoconservative was.  Young and full of myself, I couldn’t hear how those words must have sounded to his ears.  He simply looked at me, a small, sad smile on his face, and didn’t say a word.

Looking back, I don’t know whether he even believed what he had said about President Bush; but I realize now that it was something that he thought I would like to hear.  His silence afterward, in such marked contrast to years of heated debates, was his way of letting me know that some things are more important than politics.

I wish I had learned that lesson a little earlier.  Between that day, when I suffered my bout of temporary insanity, and my grandfather’s death not all that long after, I don’t remember discussing politics with him ever again.

In Confessions of an Original Sinner, John Lukacs writes that, in the 1950’s, his diocesan newspaper regularly reminded readers that “The family that prays together stays together.”  But, he asks, “isn’t the converse of that even more true?”

Now, when one of my friends or relatives starts rattling off the latest FOX News talking point, I find myself keeping quiet, a small (but not sad) smile on my face.  McCain, Obama, Biden, Palin, Democrats, Republicans—none of it is more important than the years I spent around my grandparents’ table, or the time my children will spend around theirs.  A big bowl of mashed potatoes does wonders to ward off mental illness.