By Judd Gregg - 11-07-16 06:00 AM EST
Our constitutional democracy depends for its strength on the confidence of the people.
President Lincoln summed it up with his unique clarity and conciseness when he said that it is a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
But if the people lose their faith in the government as being of them and for them, then the democracy itself is at risk.
It was once difficult to imagine that this could occur here. But the last few weeks of this presidential election - which will, thankfully, terminate on Tuesday - have brought that possibility into play.
Both candidates have put aside their obligation to strengthen the confidence of Americans, instead attacking critical institutions.
Donald Trump has told us that just about anything he disagrees with is rigged. At the top of his list is the electoral process.
You cannot have a democracy if you do not have elections that people believe are fairly executed. Trump announces over and over that elections are not fair.
To say this again and again, as he has done, strikes at a fundamental need of a democracy - that people believe that their votes count and that elections are legitimate. Trump has greatly damaged this core value.
Hillary Clinton has decided that the way to mute her own failings is to attack another critical institution in our democratic system, the national law enforcement agency.
The FBI may have had a bad period generations ago when J. Edgar Hoover went off track, but for decades now it has been the premier law enforcement group in the land.
It has established a strong reputation for being nonpartisan and a fair enforcer of our laws, and it has protected us. It has had a series of immensely talented people of integrity as its directors.
The action of Hillary Clinton in using a private server that may have compromised national security was her error, not the FBI's.
The fact that the FBI and its leadership are charged with investigating this is nothing more or less than them performing their basic duties. They must ensure that no one is above the law and that our security is not compromised.
Clinton and her aides have put FBI director James Comey in an untenable position.
He had to disclose the discovery of the thousands of additional emails or he would have been accused of covering up and manipulating the investigation.
He did what was appropriate to retain the integrity of the process and the investigation. Hillary Clinton did not.
The attacks on the FBI and its director mounted by her and her minions were intended to discredit the agency and make people believe that it is not an independent, fair force.
They may ease off such attacks in the wake of Sunday's announcement from Comey that nothing in the newly-discovered emails changes his earlier conclusion that Clinton ought not to be prosecuted. But, even if they do so, it will not heal the injury that has already been inflicted.
The self-serving and opportunistic attacks from Clinton and her followers served to erode faith in extremely important institution for the sake of political gain. It was an unusually destructive act, which will have a long and bitter aftertaste.
There was a time when people who sought to be president of this great nation understood that maintaining confidence in our form of government was more important than their personal gain.
This did not mean that those who govern should not be held to account for their failings. In fact, it meant just the opposite.
But the major party nominees in this election have shown no leadership. Rather, their approaches are a step onto the slope toward populist anarchy.
On Tuesday, this election will be over. But the damage it has done will not.
Whoever wins needs to change course abruptly and recognize that his or her first job is to defend and preserve our form of government itself.
Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.