It is a strange paradox of our electorate that we are willing to endure the endless pain of politicking but will do anything to avoid the pain that can result from the actual choices made by politicians.
By many accounts, election day will bring a rejection of a reputedly “do-nothing” Congress that is now accused of doing too much. The in-crowd supposedly will be replaced by a group devoted to undoing the last two years’ meager doings: a feeble health plan derided as socialism, an economic stimulus program that has not stimulated much more than the banking industry, and a supposed attack on our wealthiest citizens who have all the while been amassing even greater wealth.
The next campaign does not promise much more than the one just completed: two years of opportunities lost, spent avoiding the essential and pursuing the trivial.
It has somehow become politically unwise to seriously question the two wars that are depleting our resources, costing the lives and well-being of our armed forces and offering no prospect of prevailing over terrorism. When proposals are offered to help the uninsured, to extend unemployment assistance and to protect families on the brink of falling into homelessness, the mantra is: “We cannot afford it.” When the cause is war, however, over a trillion dollars are magically found.
Our continuing health care crisis is treated with timorous neglect. The modest reform bill that was passed, having prompted cries of “death panels,” rationing, socialism and unsustainable costs, awaits a new Congress that will possibly rescind it or refuse to finance it. One might have hoped that a real reform package—single-payer based basic health care with optional tiers of buy-in coverage—had been on the table. At least we would have had a debate. As it stands, unwilling to face the sacrifices required of us, we are still left with a breaking system.
Our economic system may also break. That could come at the hands of China, a Communist country that has out-maneuvered us in bare-knuckle capitalism. Some Americans call for China to restrain its predatory practices, but if the same call is made to American capitalists, the cry is: “socialism!” A president who is surrounded by bankers and staunch capitalists to guide our economy is called anti-capitalist and anti-business. He can’t please anyone.
Rather than address challenges, our politicians and the enabling media have entertained us with evasions and trivial pursuits. I have not heard one candidate suggest that there might be sacrifices that every American will have to make. I have not seen one Democrat explain how we are to pay for our two wars. Nor have I seen any Republican enumerate the specific cuts in expenditures that will have to be made if the Bush tax cuts are extended. Like automatons, our politicians are stuck repeating catch phrases while specific questions are ignored.
In the absence of actual debate, the media have made the campaign seem like another reality show, filled with bizarre stories and fake urgency. Perhaps they like it that way. The latest reports are that in September and October alone $46 million have been spent by Republicans on advertising, with another $7 million spent by Democrats. In my own state, most commercials comprise a parade of accusations that the opponent—choose your party’s candidate—is a liar. That’s better, I guess, than the race in Delaware between “the witch and the Communist,” as one pundit laughingly put it. (This case is particularly disgusting because of the ridicule poured on a woman for statements made in her early 20s.) A race in California will be decided by whether Jerry Brown allowed a naughty and sexist word to be uttered about his opponent. And the voters of Connecticut are weighing the moral significance of professional wrestling versus distorting a military record.
Needless to say, I may be feeling some of the anger and frustration shared by many in our present electorate. Readers of this column may experience something similar, although for quite different reasons. Maybe this column itself is an irritant.
So it goes. Elections happen. Disasters may come, and more pain will follow. Nonetheless, I do not believe the prophets of apocalypse. People are resilient, especially Americans. And if bad things happen, maybe those bad things will draw us together, newly focused on more important national challenges—like war, poverty and justice.