You may not have noticed, but the general election campaign started this week. I say that for two reasons:
- Mitt Romney’s victory in Wisconsin pretty well seals his nomination. Republicans understand now: No white knight is coming to save them. It’s Romney or four more years of Obama.
- President Obama’s speech Tuesday was essentially a keynote address for the fall campaign.
We can already see what that campaign will be like. Romney won the GOP nomination by raising massive amounts of money and carpet-bombing any prospective rival with negative ads. President Obama is projected to raise just under a billion dollars. In either case, you really can’t spend that kind of money on warm, fuzzy stuff. Constant advertising annoys people, so the best you can hope for is to transfer their annoyance to your opponent.
Given how politics has been going, we can anticipate that major issues will be dodged, misrepresented, and even lied about. The media, which ought to be ferreting out the information voters need to make a wise choice, will instead focus on whatever gaffes or stinging comebacks they can find or manufacture, no matter how irrelevant or trivial.
That’s a shame, because there really is an important debate to be had. I don’t claim to know what Mitt Romney believes in his heart – recently his campaign has suggested that we don’t know his “real views” yet – but I know what his party and the conservative movement stands for. Similarly, I’m never sure exactly how much liberalism President Obama is going to defend, but I have a good idea what liberalism means.
It’s a significant contrast. A honest debate between those two worldviews, resulting in a clear choice by a well-informed electorate, would be a tremendous plus for this country.
OK, it won’t happen. But we shouldn’t just shrug and let the candidates off the hook. Even as we see the waters start to circle around the sewer drain, let’s review what this campaign should be about.
1. Inequality. We’ve been in a vicious cycle for 30 years now: The rich get richer; they use that money to buy more political power; and then they use that political power to lower their taxes, weaken the the regulations they have to follow, and otherwise game the system in their favor – plus make it easier to buy political power.
The Republican Party has been the main (but not the only) vehicle for the rich, so it will be interesting to see whether President Obama succeeds in raising this issue, or if conservatives manage to label it all as envy and class warfare. I thought Obama laid it out pretty well Tuesday:
In this country, broad-based prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class. … And yet, for much of the last century, we have been having the same argument with folks who keep peddling some version of trickle-down economics. They keep telling us that if we’d convert more of our investments in education and research and health care into tax cuts — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. … Now, the problem for advocates of this theory is that we’ve tried their approach — on a massive scale. The results of their experiment are there for all to see.
2. The National Security State. At a time when government is supposed to be tightening its belt, we continue to spend more on defense than all our potential enemies put together. Is that really necessary? How much money could we save with a less aggressive foreign policy that didn’t inject us into every conflict?
Would the world really be a worse place? We’ll never know how the Arab Spring would have handled Saddam if we hadn’t spent all that blood and treasure in Iraq.
And then there’s the internal effect on our liberty and democracy. Government surveillance gets ever more intrusive, and more and more of the government’s actions are secret. How necessary is that?
The opposing case is that the world is a dangerous place, and would be even more dangerous if the US didn’t police it. Maybe Norway can keep its freedom defended with (and from) a relatively small security force, but the US doesn’t have that option.
It’s President Obama’s fault that we won’t have this discussion. (Ron Paul was the only Republican candidate who wanted to talk about it.) He has largely continued the Bush national security policies rather than challenge them.
3. Climate change. There are lots of legitimate liberal/conservative issues to hash out concerning how to deal with climate change: Should we lower CO2 by market mechanisms (cap and trade), by a carbon tax, or by direct government regulation? Should we bargain hard to get other countries to do their part, or should we take the lead? What CO2 level should we be shooting for and how fast should we try to get there? How do we balance the expense of current CO2 reduction versus investments in future research? Can geo-engineering play a role?
We aren’t having those debates because the fossil fuel corporations have spent enormous amounts of money to make the existence of climate change the issue, when in fact the science is well established. The Republican Party has been acting as a wholely-owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel companies, and some Democrats have also been either bought or intimidated by energy-industry cash.
4. The Deficit. Elsewhere I’ve presented the idea that the deficit is not the doomsday device many would have you believe. But it is a symptom of a broken political process. Congress’ main job is to figure out what we as a people want to buy and how we’re going to pay for it. If it can’t do that, what can it do?
A big chunk of the problem is the misinformed electorate. Survey after survey shows that we grossly overestimate how much money is spent on welfare, foreign aid, and whatever National-Endowment-for-the-Arts-type program we find most offensive. We also grossly underestimate how many government services we use personally, and we’re misinformed about how our taxes compare to Americans of recent decades. (Hint: Our taxes are far lower, especially for corporations and the wealthy.)
About half the country thinks we can eliminate the deficit with spending cuts that don’t touch “programs that benefit people like you”. That wishful thinking allows candidates to get away with proposing big-but-vague spending cuts that exempt defense, Social Security, and Medicare — just about everything we spend big on.
5. Immigration. Both liberals and conservatives are conflicted about immigration. There is no ideologically pure answer to our immigration problem, which is why the conversation never goes anywhere.
The centuries-old dream of American employers is to have a workforce that can’t vote. So their ideal is to have temporary foreign-worker programs: We bring people in for ten years or so, get them to work hard for very little money, and then send them home.
But working-class whites see immigrants-taking-American-jobs as one of the social changes they want the Republican Party to protect them from. Hence the rhetoric about rounding up the millions of undocumented Hispanic workers and sending them home.
The last thing the Republican Party wants is millions of poor, non-white new citizens — who would probably vote for Democrats. Democrats would like that, but the unions that support Democrats probably wouldn’t, for the same reason as conservative working-class whites.
Everybody agrees that we shouldn’t have millions of undocumented people wandering around. It’s a security risk, makes our worker-protection rules unenforcible, and generally undermines the rule of law. But since neither side has a solution it wants to take to the voters, both will posture about the issue rather than try to make progress.
6. Health care. Our health care system is a mess. We spend way more per person than any other country, and we get worse results. This is a great country for someone as rich as Dick Cheney to get a heart transplant, but it’s a terrible country for a poor pregnant woman to get pre-natal care. When you average it out, our life expectancy sucks and we lead the industrialized world in unnecessary deaths.
ObamaCare (like the RomneyCare it’s based on) is an imperfect first step at reform. I think it gives away far too much to health insurance companies and drug companies, but that’s politics. If Congress repeals it or the Supreme Court throws it out, we’re essentially nowhere, because the “replace” part of the Republican “repeal and replace” slogan is just a word; there is no actual plan that addresses any of the substantive issues.
And liberals shouldn’t let Obama say “Done now.” ObamaCare has a lot of holes that need filling.
7. The future of democracy. This issue runs through a lot of the others. Ideally, individual voters would educate themselves about the issues that concern them and elect candidates to represent their views. If they really felt strongly, they’d donate $20 or $50 to a campaign.
We’re far, far away from that ideal, and moving farther all the time. The Supreme Court has ruled that money equals speech, and that more speech is better than less. So elections are dominated by massive spending that produces better propaganda — not better educated voters.
In addition, while voters may wake up in time for an election, the big-money interests never sleep. Defeat some special-interest measure like SOPA, and within a few months it will be back in a different form. The big banks can hire entire staffs of lobbyists to write loopholes into new regulations. Voters don’t have the time to ferret that stuff out, and if they did, they couldn’t organize themselves fast enough to do anything about it.
We aren’t having this discussion because no candidate who took it seriously could raise enough money. Worse, neither party even has an ideal vision of how to handle it. The closest thing to a practical reform vision I’ve seen so far is Lawrence Lessig’s.
Resist. Chances are, this election will be decided by something stupid: a blip in the unemployment numbers, a new Romney gaffe on the Etch-a-Sketch scale, or Obama’s inability to prove that he is not a shape-shifter from the Gamma Quadrant. Heck, we’ve had elections decided on the Pledge of Allegiance.
But we don’t have to give in to that. Collectively, social networking ought to give us Arab-Spring-level power, if we exercise it. We can refuse to respond to nonsense. We can keep coming back to the real issues. It may not work in this cycle. But eventually, we might be able to drag the candidates back to what’s important.