The received wisdom that colors media coverage of the upcoming presidential election is that Americans are cynical and pessimistic about the future and the ability of our democracy to effect change.

But if cynicism truly defines our age, how do we explain the hundreds of thousands of Americans who streamed into the nation’s capital for the March for Life on Jan. 23?

Advocates for “abortion rights” have sought to characterize the pro-life movement as a “war on women.”

The name-calling worked for a while, but, inexorably, the pro-life message has slowly gained ground: A 2009 Gallup poll found that 51% of Americans called themselves “pro-life” and just 42% identified themselves as “pro-choice.”

Pro-life activists can take some credit for the shift in American values, which also signals the moral reflections of a “survivor” generation deeply aware that their own births were contingent on maternal “choice.”

The annual March for Life signals the moral health of our democracy and the strong spiritual roots that nourish the political process.

The past century witnessed the depths to which state-sponsored assaults on innocent life can descend and the failure of “democratic” nations like Germany to check the advance of a culture of death.

Only now has Germany become a country that can “trust itself” again. In the United States, the pro-life movement’s 40-plus-year battle for the defense of human life may have done more good than we will ever know — it may have kept the United States from becoming a nation that no longer “trusts itself.”

Today, we must use our humble beachhead to gain solid victories in the legislatures and the courts. But we must also advance a compelling vision of human freedom and responsibility anchored in fundamental and unchanging truths about the ultimate things.

The malaise that has shaken the nation’s sense of purpose underscores the destructive impact of an unchecked ethos of individual autonomy that has made a morally grounded political consensus so difficult.

As Blessed John Paul II warned in Evangelium Vitae, “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. … In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable; everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.”

In these pages, Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, also reflects on the spiritual roots of the political vocation and the need for our national leaders to advance the common good.

She says, “If we think of politics as free persons deliberating about how to order their lives together — rather than just about getting and keeping power — nearly everyone who takes his or her baptismal vocation seriously has some form of calling to participate in that process, as he or she is able.”