My Impossible Dream Candidate

The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be another empty exercise. Candidates are staking out positions on a centrist political spectrum from A to B. The media cover their poll rankings and how much cash they raise. Quibbling about withdrawal dates from Iraq begs larger questions about the deep problems that beset our country. We cannot afford all this irrelevance.

As the recent Atlanta social forum had it: “Another World is Possible; Another U.S. is Necessary.” We can only move forward if we acknowledge our addictions. We can only regain our freedoms if we renounce our illusions. My impossible dream candidate would make seven proposals no current “leading” candidate dares to consider.

1: End the war on drugs.  Conservatives William Buckley and the late Nobel ­prizewinning economist Milton Friedman agreed with many liberals that this war is unwinnable and that fighting it wastes blood and treasure. Friedman advocated legalizing, taxing and regulating all currently illegal drugs–from marijuana to cocaine to heroin–as we do alcohol and tobacco. Instead of wasting billions on failed policies of enforcement and incarceration, the government could make billions on taxes.

That money could be used to educate kids about drugs, to keep such drugs from underage users, and to regulate drug quality. Right now, only criminal smugglers and dealers are getting rich. Control is nil. Legalized drugs would be cheaper and less dangerous to obtain. We could stop jailing otherwise law-abiding citizens for drug offenses, including disproportionate numbers of minorities. Our country is addicted–not merely to drugs (like tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and TV)–but to our “wars” on habits the phony moralists decry. Who is the presidential candidate adult enough to say so?

2: End the war on immigrants.   No fence or wall in history–from the Great Wall of China to the Berlin wall–has ever stopped the flow of people or ideas. The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is the irrational product of another of our addictions: the penchant to blame “others” for our own problems. If only we could wall “them” out, our country would be so much better. This is not just nonsense. It’s insane.

Instead of wasting billions on walls and weapons along the border, the United States should invest in Mexican industry, education and infrastructure. Not to create more maquiladoras, which are modernized sweat shops, or to evade environmental laws for a quick buck, but with sustained, long-term plans that include educational opportunities and job training for Mexicans in Mexico. “They” are “us,” folks. Mexico would be an ideal place to develop alternative energy systems, for example. That would not only create productivity and expand markets right next door, it would combat yet another U.S. addiction, pretending that the world beyond our own borders is less real than it is within them, that non-Americans matter less than Americans do.

3: Abolish the CIA.   This World War Two relic has become a Frankenstein monster, destroying our values and any possibility of world peace. The CIA has never achieved a single constructive success. Not only did the CIA fail to prevent the 9/11 attacks, it has armed and fortified many rascals who later became our enemies, like Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Osama bin Laden.

The CIA serves corporate overlords, deposing or murdering freely-elected rulers–in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Cuba, Iraq, etc. – who appear to threaten corporate profits. Does anyone really think we were attacked on 9/11 because “they hate us for our freedoms”? Many countries despise our political and military meddling in their affairs. The CIA spearheads these intrusions. And it spies on U.S. citizens. The agency is “a rogue elephant” as Senator Frank Church called it thirty years ago, that dishonors the reputation of the United States as much as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The world–for all of us–would be much safer and more humane without it.

4: Beat Swords into Ploughshares.  Our most serious addiction as a society is to weaponry. Our defense budget outstrips those of all other countries combined. We blow billions on prototypes of planes and weapons systems that are never constructed. Or are built and then quickly superseded. Our military capacity dictates our policies. We are prisoners of our own arsenal. We create horrific weapons and then worry terrorists will steal them. Our armaments make the world less safe, not more.

We have hundreds of military bases around the world that we should dismantle. Our humongous military industry should be radically downsized. We could use the money saved to house and feed our own needy citizens, whose number has grown in recent decades. It is obscene and perverse that we build instantly outmoded bombers instead of schools and decent neighborhoods. Of whom are we really afraid?

5: Let Our People Go.  The United States has become the “incarceration nation,” warehousing more human beings than any other nation ever. Sure, some people pose a danger to society and deserve to be jailed. But we are addicted to the quick fix of locking people up and throwing away the key. We should abolish the three-strikes laws. One third of the 2.2 million Americans in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses. All these people–many of them young–will learn in prison is how to become criminals.

California is now building the most expensive new prison complex ever. We need more schools and hospitals and decent low-cost housing instead. Prison should be a last resort, not the first response. Recidivism is rampant and true reform is rare. The prison-industrial complex is a strong lobby, but prison builders and guards could be retrained as school builders, teachers, environmental aides and physicians’ assistants.

6: Make Public Officials Accountable.   George W. Bush took office by means of a U.S. Supreme Court edict, against the popular will, in a coup. He recently let Lewis Libby, a convicted perjurer and obstructer of justice, escape jail. In such a criminal regime, where is accountability? Dick Cheney knows there isn’t any.

We need some kind of automatic special prosecutor law, independent of the compromised judiciary, the corrupt executive and the impotent/inept legislature.  Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Americans continue to believe that most public officials honorably serve the common good.   But in U.S. politics, God is not just on the money, God is the money. Mr. Smith hasn’t been to Washington for many years. Public officials who abuse their trust deserve far more jail time than drug users.

7: Ensure Immediate Health Care for All.   This would not seem controversial, though the long knives came out early in the Clinton administration until the Clintons backed off, and are unsheathed yet again to attack Michael Moore. But Moore is simply saying what everyone already knows: Health care is a basic right that any responsible government should guarantee, whatever the lobbyists of the insurance industry, HMOs, hospitals, physicians, et. al. may say.

The money saved from downsizing the military and prison industries and ending the drug war would be more than enough to cover these medical costs.  Like many Americans, doctors, insurers and others are addicted to profits. But they’ll continue to do well, even if basic health coverage is guaranteed to all.

Most of our addictions are borne of fears we need to outgrow. We are victims of our own paranoia, stoked by demagogues and their media megaphones. That paranoia creates fearful responses, which sometimes bring on the very reactions we dread. Those who now urge us to bomb Iran–despite the ongoing bloody debacle in Iraq–should be scorned and castigated. That is pathology. Bombing people is murder.
Nothing–including the threat of international terrorism–justifies undermining the U.S. Constitution or disrespecting the rights of individuals, Americans and non-Americans alike, whatever their religious beliefs.

Is there a presidential candidate insightful enough to lead the U.S. electorate beyond our deep-seated illusions and addictions? Can we at least have a conversation about the issues that define us as a nation? Or is that an impossible dream?

JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting The Truth: The Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger, 2006).



James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.