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The idea that American democracy could be a beacon to the world has endured since the Statue of Liberty was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland on Oct. 28, 1886.LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters

The sun rose over New York harbour at 6:33 on Monday, the day before Americans were finally to vote in the ugliest U.S. election anyone can remember. The horizon glowed pink against the grey morning waves. Gulls circled in the early light. A plane traced a white thread across the eastern sky.

Off in the distance, a figure came into view, her arm held high. As the first full rays bathed her towering form, the green of her copper robes showed against the sky's blue backdrop and the gold flame in her upraised torch seemed to glow.

The United States is not just the most powerful country in the world. It's the most powerful idea: the idea of freedom. If that idea becomes tarnished and the torch dims, the whole world stands to suffer.

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That is one reason this election has been so disturbing: It has thrown a shadow over the American idea. The country that likes to call itself the world's greatest democracy has just put on a shocking display of political dysfunction.

A vulgar demagogue who can barely open his mouth without uttering a lie, a slur or a boast has come within striking distance of the White House. A candidate disliked and distrusted by much of the public is the only real alternative. The descent of American democracy has spread doubts among its allies and chagrin among its admirers.

Its rivals, meanwhile, lick their chops. Freedom House, a U.S. think tank, reports that 2015 saw "the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom."

Even at its worst moments, the United States has always stood for something. The Statue of Liberty is the embodiment of the hope that Americans, and people around the world, place in its experiment with "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Lady Liberty sprang from the imagination of a Frenchman. Historian Édouard de Laboulaye was a student of the U.S. Constitution who believed that freedom was an inalienable right. As an admirer of the United States, he thought that honouring its virtues would help boost the struggle for democracy back home. When the Union victory in the Civil War seemed to affirm the strength of American democracy, the time was right for a grand gesture.

With the help of, among others, sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the statue took shape: a woman, formed of copper sheets, holding a torch in her right hand and, in her left, a tablet carrying the date that the U.S. Declaration of Independence was adopted. Broken chains at her feet stand for the broken bonds of tyranny.

Most statues and monuments commemorate a historical figure or event. This one aimed to promote an idea. In case anyone should miss the point, it was formally named Liberty Enlightening the World.

Today, about four million people a year visit the Statue of Liberty National Monument and its companion, Ellis Island, once the country's main centre for clearing new immigrants. On the ferry to the islands, a recorded announcement tells visitors the statue is "a universal symbol of our nation's freedom."

The idea that American democracy could be beacon to the world has endured since the statue was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland on Oct. 28, 1886. Ronald Reagan, borrowing a phrase from an early pilgrim, John Winthrop, called his country a "shining city on a hill" – a "tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace."

Hillary Clinton, who faces Donald Trump in Tuesday's election, has said that "I believe we are still Lincoln's last, best hope of Earth. We're still Reagan's shining city on a hill."

But many Americans are beginning to doubt the country can even govern itself, much less be an example to the world. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that, as the Times put it, "an overwhelming majority of voters are disgusted by the state of American politics."

After this campaign, it is hard to blame them. In the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus that visitors can read when they come to the Statue of Liberty, the "mighty woman with a torch" proclaims, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." How does that square with a candidate for president who called for a ban on Muslim visitors and proposes to build a wall on the border with Mexico? Even if Mr. Trump goes down to defeat in Tuesday's balloting, polls suggest he will get the support of more than 40 per cent of those who vote.

On Liberty Island on a bright and blustery Monday, some visitors said they were discouraged by what they witnessed in this election. Elorise Harris, 29, of Dubuque, Iowa, was pushing her daughter in a stroller and enjoying her first-ever visit to the statue, a "magnificent, beautiful thing" to see. "It is a beacon of hope," she said, "but in this election, it just doesn't seem we are showing that."

French visitor Céline Lemoine simply shook her head when asked about the election. "For we French," she said, "it seems a little crazy."

Others said they had not lost hope for the United States and its ideals. International polls, the Times notes in a report published Sunday on the country's tarnished reputation, still find that it is the world's most admired country.

Colette Jones, 56, a property manager from England, said it might not be a bad thing that Americans were "speaking up and standing up" for what they believe, even if the debate is raucous. She said the United States has righted itself before and could do it again after letting off steam.

This is certainly far from the first crisis in U.S. democracy. The post-Second World War period alone has seen upheavals over the Vietnam War, riots over racial injustice, the Richard Nixon Watergate scandal, the Bill Clinton sex scandal and the trauma of 9/11. The mighty woman's torch has shone through it all, a lasting symbol of hope in the promise of freedom and the strength of American democracy.

As the sun set at 4:45 on Monday, the statue stood in silhouette against an orange sky. A group of onlookers on a harbourside pier let out a cheer as the sun dropped below the horizon. Just before darkness, Liberty's torch lit up, a beacon for all who could see it.