As the presidential campaign reaches fever pitch—with Super Pac attacks appearing constantly on TV and both candidates sharpening their debate zingers—I feel guilty about my growing obsession with it all.
I realize the political and economic progress we desperately need won’t come directly from the ballot box. 2008 taught us that. Even with a former community organizer in the White House and a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, many urgent reforms were stalled, watered-down or completely MIA. I wish today I could take back at least half of my campaign contributions four years ago, redistributing them to grassroots fighting for the common good.
But I can’t say elections don’t matter. 2010 taught us that. Whatever my disappointments with the Obama on economics and foreign policy, his administration has engineered some significant shifts in commons-related fields like health care, public works, student loans, sustainable transportation and smart growth that affect the lives of millions. Plus, even a sideways glance at Tea Party zealots in Congress makes me terrified about the prospects of Romney taking the Oval Office.
Electing leaders (ideally from both parties) who care about sustaining the commons is clearly part of the strategy for delivering economic opportunity and ecological sanity for the world. But at this point in history, our energy needs to be focused more on igniting citizens outside the usual political circle to demand change in language and accents not usually heard in the corridor of powers—something like Occupy times twenty.
Then why I am so intrigued by the political race? First, there’s the gaudy drama that captures my imagination like a hard-fought pennant race in baseball. And I will confess to some lingering hope that Obama in his second term will be able to slow the widespread looting of America’s public assets—schools, social services, the environment, transit, parks, libraries etc.—and get us started on the long path to fulfilling our national mission statement: liberty and justice for all.
But I’ll also admit a fascination with the Republicans. Can they actually mean what they say? What do they really want? And why are they are so angry even when the libertarian right wing has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams of 30 years ago. They mystify, not to mortify, me. The overarching theme of their campaign this year is challenging the legitimacy of a liberal—even a mild one—to be president. And for many, that’s compounded by incredulity that their fellow Americans elevated a black man to the White House.
No less troubling is the party’s near-unanimous acceptance that government should not do much of anything beyond fielding an army, policing sexual conduct and subsidizing corporations. It’s clear the GOP agenda—which the once moderate Mitt Romney has wholeheartedly endorsed—serves the interests of the very wealthy, who more than ever are influencing this elections with Super Pac contributions.
But cold, calculating self-interest is not the whole story. That doesn’t explain the fury we hear from Fox News, talk radio and Republicans on the stump. The right wing, after all, draws votes from beyond the one-percent, or even the ten-percent that their economic policies conspicuously favor.
A more sweeping reason for Republican rage became more clear when I recently stumbled across an essay noting of Mitt Romney’s book No Apologies in an old copy of the New Yorker. Writer Louis Menand pinpointed anxiety about America’s decline as the centerpiece of the candidate’s campaign. The no-end-in-sight economic downturn and no-victory wars in the Middle East has set off a panic about American powerlessness. (Never mind that Obama’s predecessor in the White House shoulders much of the blame on both fronts.) Among some of the Republican base, fear that blacks, immigrants, gays and women are taking away the America they once knew intensifies this panic.
The widespread consensus on the right is that Obama and his backers believe this decline is inevitable, and are too gutless to do what’s necessary to keep America #1. Romney’s remedy for getting America back on top is a large, expensive buildup of our military might coupled with lavish tax cuts for the rich. This spells disaster for the commons across the board as everything from the National Park Service to unemployment benefits to early childhood education is slashed.