Real issues for the next campaign
In the fall of this year we will again have elections in the U.S. Although we'll not be electing a president, the mid-term congressional election will serve as the jumping-off point for hopeful candidates to succeed Mr. Bush in 2008. If our last election ... I should say, if our fifty last elections are a guide, we can expect a season of blithering drivel from the candidates, directed mainly at tearing down their opponents. In our last election for the presidency of the country – and for a leadership position in the world – Messr. Bush and Kerry managed to get through the campaign without uttering a word about any serious issue. (Check my '04 pre-election note to be reminded.) Let's not dwell on that depressing performance, but it may be useful to reflect on what should be the campaign issues, the matters that really matter to both the nation and the world.
American political campaign "issues" have long been marked by inanity, while serious problems get no attention by candidates or the media. The nation will continue its descent into idiocy and final failure if we do not take our problems seriously and deal with them in our elections. We're reminded of some real issues.
Here's an incomplete list of issues that a reasonable public must insist be debated in the campaign. Not some of them; all of them. Sadly, these same issues should have been routinely on the front burner in campaigns over the past thirty years, but the media – who have the access and the responsibility to query the candidates on such issues – have not served the public, but have let the politicians blather on about trivia, while our most pressing problems, among them the following, have received essentially no attention in the campaigns. We can hope that the media will eventually feel a sense of shame over their vacuous performance and step up to the plate, forcing candidates to address these issues.
There are, of course, many other issues that are equally or nearly as important as these. But it's frightening to think that we're simply not dealing with such crucial issues in what should be our most productive issue-debating periods, the election campaigns. God knows it's not for lack of time: the national campaigns have stretched to a numbing two years.
- Energy: The U.S. and world energy future has represented a crisis for the past several decades, but without serious action or debate by presidents or the Congress the crisis has now become nearly unsolvable. While the media and the politicians have slept, we've been cruising toward the ultimate oil crisis, which we will meet up close within the next few decades. Long before the world's oil resources are exhausted – perhaps within 25 years, or sooner with the rapid increase in oil use in Asia and elsewhere – the price of oil will rise to a level that will make it infeasible as a fuel for our cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships, as well as for fuel oil for home and industrial heating, and for electric generating plants. In other words, the energy that powers our entire society will vanish. Yet the Administration and Congress have no plan in place to deal with the coming no-oil reality. If this is not a crisis the word has no meaning. We must stop electing candidates who have not thought about this subject. Candidates must be asked what will power our transportation and electricity generation; what about nuclear power; how do we reduce energy use to one that is sustainable world-wide? What, Ms or Mr Candidate, is your plan?
- Climate change: Closely connected to the world's intensifying use of energy, it is now clear that our increasing release of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere is contributing to a warming of the Earth. Even though there is debate about the eventual outcome of this climate change, it is likely that we will not be happy with it. Such impacts as a significant rise in sea level, increased storm activity, shifts in areas of drought and catastrophic flooding, and a possible return of the ice age make our lack of action in this area criminally negligent. Mr. Bush's statement that he will take no action that will harm the U.S. economy will ring hollow when the consequence of his inaction is a wholesale disruption of that economy. About the only thing that can be said for his inaction is that had previous presidents and Congresses not proved equally inept we might not be in the mess we're in. Unfortunately it's no longer certain that any practicable action by any or all countries will have much impact on the future climate. We may just be along for the ride at this point. Nevertheless, this year's campaigners should not be allowed to ignore this issue, as in the past.
- Population: The issue of human population growth lies at the root of humanity's most serious problems, such as energy, climate, pollution, loss of natural resources, hunger, urban crowding and crime, militarism, etc. Yet U.S. politicians have ignored this problem for decades, and have even actively denied that a population problem exists. Because of such short-sightedness, in spite of loud and clear warnings by population experts, we are now in a position where the Earth's population will continue to grow by at least 50 percent to about 10 billion people before there's any chance of it leveling off. Action by politicians a few decades ago, when they were clearly warned, could have considerably reduced this growth and its attendant problems. But even at this late date action by our political leaders is needed to ameliorate the worst of the unpleasant consequences that lie ahead. Therefore candidates for office must be asked to spell out their thoughts and their plans in this critical area.
- Disarmament: No other achieveable action would have so quickly beneficial an impact on the state of humanity as worldwide demilitarization. Even a partial broad disarmament would free up vast resources that are now tossed away on arms, which could then be used to tackle our serious problems. Not to mention that military activities contribute vastly to pollution and to needless use of nonrenewable resources, and are threatening to bankrupt our nation. Progress on this is of the highest importance, yet our leaders are achieving nothing, and the cozy media are not holding their feet to the fire.
- Hunger: Is there a plausible reason why the media consistently fail to query political candidates about their plan to remedy hunger and poverty in our nation and in the world? Most candidates have no plan, other than mouthing meaningless pap about "creating jobs", something that is generally not in their power. Hunger and poverty, beyond being in themselves among our worst social ills and an international embarrassment for the U.S., lead inevitably to other social ills, such as disease and crime, which cannot be addressed in isolation. It's time for serious candidates to present a coordinated plan to renew and refresh our society, to rid it of the internal rot of poverty and hunger and their consequences.
- Disease: This and several other issues, such as hunger and poverty, must be addressed together as an integrated plan for social improvement. Nourishment, living conditions, and education all have direct impact on the incidence of disease. But in addition, a meaningful plan for health care and ample funding of medical research are needed. The U.S. has the resources, but at the moment they are being piddled away in military adventures.
- Crime: A huge bite could be taken out of the crime committed by the uneducated, poor, and desperate, by reducing the number of uneducated, poor, and desperate. As for the crimes committed by the rich and powerful, we can hardly hope to improve their ethical sense, but we can improve the certainty and severity of the consequences of their crimes.
- Education: Few issues can have as great and lasting impact on our society as drastic improvements in the level and type of public education. And few areas of society are in more desperate need of renewal and leadership. It's a sad fact that the majority of U.S. high school graduates, after twelve long years of study, are still unprepared for adult life in a modern democracy. Although the U.S. federal government has a limited role in the nation's educational structure, a national leader with skill and innovation is needed to save our country from continuing its ongoing educational slide.
- Natural habitat: Life on Earth has undergone many major extinction events in its history, when large numbers of species were eradicated. These have been brought on by natural events, gradual such as climate change, or catastrophic such as volcanic eruptions or impacts by meteorites. We're now in the middle of another major extinction event. But this time we are the cause. For several of our recent presidents the little matter of our planet's species disappearing forever has been so far on the back burner that it has been out of sight. If we do not elect leaders who understand this situation and who know what they are going to do about it, we will be leaving a much impoverished world for coming generations.
Two corollary points stand out from the above:
1. The U.S. media, who have special status in law as the designated informational link between the people and their politicians, have failed in election after election to ask candidates for any serious discussion of such crucial issues as the above. The media's frequent hand-wringing about the competence of our elected officials runs into their own complicity in getting incompetent politicians elected.
2. We continue to elect "ordinary Joes" (and Janes) to top political positions, as if those jobs require no special skills or knowledge. In fact national leadership positions require not only great skill and special knowledge of such issues as the above, but ideas and inspiration, and the capacity to lead. They are frankly beyond the capacity of the ordinary Joe (or George, or Hillary), as we have seen. While it may seem admirably egalitarian to send ordinary citizens to lead us, in these days it is foolish and self-destructive.
The underlying problem is that the U.S. is in the midst of a long-term "dumbing" trend. The citizens and the media play to each other, and find each other at a level that seems to descend every year further into idiocy. The electorate, as a whole, appears not to have the ability to distinguish political flim-flam from meaningful discussion or analysis, and the media cater to this by serving up a goulash of flim-flam analysis. As a result, we've sent hundreds of congressmen and presidents to Washington because we like their grin (see, by the way, my September '04 piece, "Grin and Win"), with the hope that they'll be able to muddle through. And they've muddled, just as expected.
We can't afford muddling much longer. This is a call to the nation's media to take their political role seriously, to face candidates with hard questions about ... not the pat "issues", but the difficult ones, the important ones, and to insist on relevant answers. This is the "narrow road", and it requires that reporters learn and prepare. At the same time, the electorate needs to learn that dealing with our nation's future takes serious, knowledgeable leaders with solid ideas, not smiley-faced marionettes, schooled in campaign handshakes and pat answers. But who but the same media can effect this transformation? Who but the media can impress on the people that our elections are not carnivals, but are job interviews for the most difficult and demanding jobs in the world, jobs that have the greatest impact on our individual and collective future. That our country's experiment in democracy should not end in failure seems like sufficient motivation for the media to make the effort. No one else can.
© 2006 H. Paul Lillebo