Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Real Debate

The debates are done. The countdown has begun. Election day is fast approaching. Many are already in a state of malaise and cannot wait for the election to be over. For others November 6th is “judgment day”, a day of reckoning. The battle lines are drawn and the intensity is building on all sides towards a crescendo. Will the American people come out and vote, will they cast ballots against their own interest or are they aware of what’s at stake to make an informed decision. That is what hangs in the balance.

Over the last few weeks, like many millions, I watched the three-part saga in its entirety. The debates had all the makings of any exciting live television event, with the welcome exception of annoying commercials to disrupt the flow. The first debate had the president in a kind of slumber. Some compared his behavior to the famous Mohammed Ali "Rope-a-Dope" technique, where one purposely loses a fight only to come back and stage a surprise win. In the second one, the two candidates unleashed upon each other, interrupting and overstepping each other in a "presidential" joust. In the third and final round, seated around a table, they managed to make their case for the presidency, by not directly answering questions with flare and adding very little new substance.

The media, which only cares about declaring winners and losers, and analyzing body movement and eyebrow twitches to mold perception, as usual did their level best to sound intelligent. CNN teased the audience constantly with a poll that would determine the winner. The panels they assembled over analyzed even things that were not said. The "fact checkers" tried to keep ahead of the double speak politicians are known for. And FOX News, the Republican Channel and MSNBC the Democrat channel went to absurd lengths to put a shine on their beloved candidate or find excuses for their lack luster performance. In the end pseudo polling declared Romney the winner of the first debate, Obama the victor of the second and the third was declared more or less a tie. Personally I thought the real debate never took place. What took place was a sparing match to determine "best in show".

The first debate dealt with the economy, the second with domestic issues and the third with foreign policy. Tax plans and gargantuan figures were offered to reduce the national debt and create jobs, gun violence and gay rights were fleetingly discussed, healthcare was fought over,  the need for a stronger and larger military was expressed, China was pummeled, Bin Laden was dead and Al-Qaida was declared in decline, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan were toyed with and the "rogue" nation of Iran was labeled the biggest threat facing the planet. Both candidates proposed ambitious plans to bring jobs back to Americans. The president wanted the rich to do their part, pay more taxes than they have become accustomed to and Romney held onto a belief that the rich were the ones that created jobs so they should be left alone. Both accused each other that the "math does not add up" and so the voters were left scratching their heads. In the end the real debate around real issues was left to the wayside. The drug war, electoral reform, the overflowing prison system, housing, education, white-collar crime, gun control, immigration, extra judicial drone killings, Guantanamo Bay, illegal and devastating wars past and present, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Gaza, Pakistan and its nuclear threat, were largely kept out of the discussion.

You often hear that the 2012 election is about one thing and one thing alone "the economy". "Jobs, jobs and jobs" are what will define the victor in this race they say. If that is in fact true, then as a voter I feel quite emasculated. At a time when certain Republican candidates like Todd Aikin and Richard Mourdock make comments that inadvertently endorse rape and when the candidate and the party categorically refuse to refute them, the election cannot only be about the economy. When a woman's right to choose contraception is under threat, the election cannot be just about jobs. At a time when there is high unemployment and a growing sixteen trillion dollar national debt and there is talk about another war and a larger military the election cannot just be about numbers. When children do not get a good education and those who do are burdened by a herculean debt, this election cannot just be about hollow ideas. And when good healthcare is only the privilege of the wealthy, this election cannot be about one thing, and one thing alone.

America is a land of excessive choice. When you walk into even a small grocery store on any given day you can buy about fifty brands of potato chips, thirty kinds of beer, fifteen kinds of toothpaste and almost a limitless variety of cosmetics. On an over crowded highway, it is hard to spot two similar car models. A large variety of choice is an American birthright that people have come to accept not only as a matter of pride but also as an indicator of wealth, democracy, freedom and prosperity. The same does not apply to elections. The choice there is extremely limited. Only two parties, two candidates and only two approaches to governing that often have only six degrees of separation. The pendulum swings every four or eight years and with it comes very limited change. There are core philosophical differences between the parties that alter decision-making and agenda setting, but to a large extent Washington operates entrenched in a system of special interests and jockeying Senators and Congressmen. Recently the system of checks and balances which the Congress and the Supreme Court are supposed to provide, have been seen to fail much too often with disastrous consequences. Every time an attempt is made by a third or fourth party to join the fray, it is often beaten as a result of not having the financial wherewithal to reach a national audience. In this election Democrats and Republicans have spent more than 900 million dollars combined on advertising alone. For any viable party to compete on that scale is virtually unthinkable.

On October 17th while President Obama and Mitt Romney were locked in their second debate, there was a picket outside on the Hofstra University campus which largely went unreported in the main stream media. Police arrested Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala as they tried to enter the debate. The two of them were protesting being barred from participating in the debate despite being on 85 percent of ballots nationwide in this election. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsored the debate, requires any third party candidate to poll at 15 percent or higher to participate. The Democratic and Republican Parties set up the Commission in 1987 and have run it since. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Stein and Honkala said they were handcuffed to chairs for eight hours in a warehouse. They were arrested for blocking traffic after sitting down in front of a line of police officers standing in the street.

What every subsequent outrageously expensive election highlights is that democracy in this nation is under threat. If democracy just means having the choice to buy a desired product or a life style, then the constitutional ideal of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is very much alive, as long as you have the means to afford it. But if democracy means an active, diverse and intelligent exchange of ideas, with the media engaging the public with issues that constitute a “real debate”, then one must demand it.  American presidential elections in the recent past have had historical low voter turn out. Often averaging at 50% or less. Is it voter apathy or just a loss of belief in the system as a result of a lack of a "real debate", is hard to tell.

This election like never before could change the trajectory of the nation on many levels. The polarized nature of the electorate reflects the gravity of the situation, on racial, political and gender lines. While Mitt Romney tries to move to the center, hoping to broaden his appeal, President Obama and his campaign hammer away at his flip flopping credentials and other right wing views he has expressed in the past. What will determine this election is not the so called “undecided voters”, those who have either been living in a cave or have been comatose for the last fourteen months for not being able to make up their mind. But the people who will show up on voting day, very clear about what they believe democracy should be and which candidate is most likely to uphold it in their limited way within the American political frame work. When no system is perfect, and no democracy is ideal, one must chose the lesser of two evils.

Bob Schieffer the moderator of the last presidential debate ended the session quoting his mother who used to say to him on election day, “Go vote. It will make you feel big and strong”. In 2008 when Barack Obama became president, many symbolically felt their voting power paid off. To see it happen again, the “real debate” within the voter needs to begin. It is what it is.