The American presidential elections should be decided on issues or, to be more precise, on the perceived capacity of the candidates to resolve what the electorate considers to be the outstanding issues. To persuade the prospective voters of their respective merits, the candidates engage in long campaigns around the country, multi-media advertising and Hollywood-style televised debates. They should be comparing realistic views and proposals on those major issues. However, like in every other working democracy, usually they are not.
Candidates want to be elected by diverse constituencies, with different and often contradictory interests and demands. They need to be everything to everybody, avoid every polarizing matter and promise everything and its opposite. They also need to appear aligned with their party’s doctrine and record while in government. More to the truth, they must look like towing the line most convenient to the interests of their party’s contributors, particularly those who control the media, which in turn controls the perceptions of the electorate.
The burning issues in these elections are there for all to see. How they are actually exposed or dissimulated during the campaign depends on the capacity of the candidates and their supporters to present or even manipulate the facts.
The two major and unequal categories of issues are the domestic and those pertaining to foreign affairs. The presidential elections are generally won or lost on domestic concerns, the only international occurrences that could change this mindset would be either a new war, making the electorate usually rally around the incumbent, or old tiresome wars, which may stock anger and the desire to change.
Save that, the economy comes first. If the economy goes well, every other problem dwarfs by comparison, if the economy is in decline, nothing else matters much. Presently, the economy seems to be in partial reprieve, after much trouble and scandal from Wall Street, the privileges of a few failed bankers and industries being rescued by everybody’s tax money. The taxes of all those who actually pay them, that is. Simultaneously, progressive globalization brings cheaper goods from abroad, decreasing inflation, but also causing de-industrialization and the loss of blue-collar jobs, increasing the deficit and the numbers of the unemployed.
The other domestic issues have polarized around the form, role and size of government, meaning in fact a debate about what should be the conception of society. Is the US still a nation of pioneers fending for themselves, dreading government intervention and taxes, bound mostly by a Constitution stressing individual rights and obligations, pursuing happiness in communities of free entrepreneurs? Or have they evolved sufficiently towards a European-style social convention, providing protection from cradle to grave to all citizens, much beyond the minimum support to the old, the feeble and the downtrodden?
Social protection is creating a major political division. The battle lines were drawn over the most basic of social cohesion measures, whether or not to extend health coverage to everybody. Social security is already a general contribution by all and to all, but provides only very limited emergency health services and small unemployment, disability or retirement pensions. It is still largely perceived as a last recourse for those incapable of providing sufficiently through other plans for themselves and their families. Therefore, health care insurance is still debated as whether it should be made available for all as a matter of course, or better left to individual decision.
A major concern is national and individual security, the rise of extremism, the threat of terrorism, the fight against crime and the disagreement over gun control. Then, there are the drug wars over production, distribution and use, followed by the general corruption it causes and the crowding of prisons as a consequence. How can a country that went through the throes of prohibition and the consequent golden age of gangsterism, which penetrated the political, judicial and police structures, be so foolish? Like before, since it is impossible to defeat them, tax them. Alcohol is taxed, tobacco is taxed, drugs should be taxed as well. There will be enough money to treat the addicts, ruin the gangs and keep in prison the offenders.
The education systems are coalescing around expensive and mostly private poles of excellence on one side and a majority of increasingly mediocre public schools on the other side. In relation to the protection of the environment, the candidates disagree over resource exploration on protected lands, mostly national parks. Finally, there is the recurrent theme of equality of opportunity and all the other problems common to developed societies.
On foreign policy, this electoral campaign has balanced between detachment and the recognition of dependence on foreign oil, foreign commerce and the need for foreign intervention to defend the homeland and its interests.
Against the temptation for some sort of isolation is the belief in the uniqueness of America, a new kind of imperial power with a “manifest destiny”, the first modern republic, a social experiment in equality and material progress for all and the responsibility for propagating democratic ideals. Battered by rapid world changes, but still burdened by the need to act as the world’s policemen for its own political and economic survival and the survival of the western democracies. It is increasingly difficult and expensive to keep this role among the rise of emerging economic powerhouses. The decolonization degraded into failed states and countries carrying on endless wars over territory and resources, turmoil all over the Arab crescent turning ignorance and despair into religious extremism, wars in the Middle East threatening the supply of oil, China and Russia changing from failed communist regimes into corrupt plutocracies with world power ambitions.
The American political parties came to radicalize the extreme conceptions of society and the role of government, the conservative republicans versus the progressive democrats.
The Republicans took the conservative banner, supporting the smallest possible government, no obstacles to entrepreneurship, lower taxes, and individualism on social issues. Presently the Republican candidate claims to be for the protection of individual rights against the intrusion of the state, considers the social state, as it is understood in Europe, as socialism or even communism. He is either for more aloofness in foreign affairs or more hawkishness in foreign interventions to protect the interests of the US and its allies.
The Democrats have evolved somewhat in the direction of the European center right parties, liberal on economic issues, seeing progressive taxation and redistribution as necessary to ensure social balance and the protection of the poor. Like everywhere else, all claims towards making the rich pay more than their fair share serves only as measure of example and equity, but actually means that the middle class always ends up paying the most. By different means (sometimes...) they follow foreign affairs policies towards the same objectives as the Republicans. Since the Israeli lobby ruined the reelection of Bush father when he tried to pursue a more balanced stance towards the Middle East, there is not much change on the overall objectives of the State Department regardless of the Administration’s color.
The American dream used to mean the possibility of achieving success in one generation, personified by the self made man. Before the European colonial expansion this was extremely rare. People would strive to leave the serfdom of peasantry into the professional and commercial corporations. Over time and successive generations, acquiring and expanding land or commerce ownership and eventually becoming sufficiently wealthy, they would send their sons to school or seminary to become clerks and thus acquire the knowledge to reinforce their influence and power. Much later, of course things changed, but social mobility was, and is, still limited.
The changes in American society go in the European direction, the cost of education increases, productivity and income depend on knowledge, economic and professional success depends on the capacity to integrate the new paradigm of the information society. The whole country is more and more stratified.
The evolving economic crisis has brought to light the costs of mismanaging the empire. Spending too much in foreign interventions for the benefit of ensuring a steady supply of energy and the protection of transportation lanes to the exporting markets is turning out a negative balance of costs versus benefits, as all empires eventually do.
The results of the American presidential elections will have world consequences. Which one of the two candidates would the electors choose? Better the devil you know.