What the Election Should Have Been About

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Consult Roger Cohen in the Times on the “shrinking American mind” or Max Boot in the Post on the “sleaziest presidential campaign ever,” or any number of kindred spirits, and it is clear that the pundit class is dissatisfied with the depth of political debate in the run up to the 2020 national plebiscite. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, they are correct: political discourse is superficial, drug-down by scandal mongering, juvenile slurs, and, even in the best of times, stale “liberal” and “conservative” talking points. What is done is done. Let me suggest three ways that we might improve going forward.

The U.S. suffers from state-sponsored opacity surplus. In their own ways and at different times, Bill Moyers and Daniel Patrick Moynihan bemoaned excessive governmental secrecy, security state secrecy particularly, and were right to do so. Whether in protection of sources-&-methods or “national security” itself, we know that the Church Commission and Freedom of Information Act have been largely thrown on the ash heap of history. For every Panama Deception and Hazel O’Leary, there are untold instances of mum’s the word, nothing to see here. For every Pentagon Papers and Extraordinary Rendition, there is a movie starring Tom Hanks or Adam Driver instead of a real-live public reckoning. The effect is to increase business for the “true crime” section at Barnes & Noble, and, as noted, fuel a subgenre of Hollywood films (safely produced well after the shooting). But secrecy also undermines public confidence in public veracity and with it the legitimacy of public institutions. They may be wacko, but at least QANON followers exhibit a deep-seated desire to know the truth. If they are not getting it from the White House or Capitol Hill or Pentagon briefing room, then they will look elsewhere.

Let us be clear that this problem is structural. The growth of the U.S. state during the Great Depression and Second World War gave us a form of national state unprecedented in human history. In terms of scale and integration with economy and culture, in terms of its command over nuclear weapons, in terms of its Cold War machinations, the post-war American state is the root source of our opacity surplus, and, in some ways, its chief beneficiary. We can read Charles Beard, C. Wright Mills, Sheldon Wolin, or even Gary Wills, and come away with a good sense of it. But my undergraduate mentor, Robert A. Solo (he the economist author of the little known The Positive State), drummed into me and I have never forgotten, the need for a systems-oriented, structuralist perspective to understand the full dimensions of what FDR et al. bequeathed to their progeny.

Speaking of economics, the superficiality of public discourse on matters economic is no less a problem, the brilliance of Krugman, Stiglitz, Piketty, and Sachs notwithstanding. Call this core issue myopia. What we have here is not a failure to communicate: to communicate mathematically complex analyses, communicate germane historical lessons, or to communicate multidimensional, dynamic policy prescriptions; what we are experiencing, I believe, is a failure to question basic assumptions, and to grapple, not with the last war, but the war we are fighting currently. In a word, economists are like almost everyone else: they are myopic with respect to the implications of climate change.

Economists, and I stress, most people, even me, have not quite admitted to themselves, nor fully gamed out, that the global economy, in broad strokes, is unsustainable. More to the point, it is killing us. Capitalism is an inherently growth-oriented economic system, but infinite “growth” was bound to end up a problem on a finite planet. Sure, we might eliminate use of fossil fuels, eventually. We might even regulate the pursuit of self-interest, reigning in corporate power and mercantile state policies and bolstering worker rights and environmental protection in all four corners. But the core issue would remain unscathed: the continual expansion of production and consumption worldwide, as currently organized and protected by law and vested interests, is detrimental to sustainable human existence, and for “surplus populations” especially (but don’t tell them, whoever they are, lest they get restless).

Instead of debating what to do about this dire predicament, pols, pundits, genuine economic experts, and charlatans alike skate past the core issue in favor of well-worn ideological debates born at the dawn of modern times and given their current shape by the Great Depression. Joe Biden wants to increase home ownership. Donald Trump wants to protect the oil and gas industry. Joe Biden wants to address “the existential threat” of climate change by rejoining the Paris Accords. Donald Trump wants to rake forests. It is mind-numbing, and worse, beside the point. Meanwhile, intellectual surrogates tout policies agendas that, if they worked perfectly, would restore a measure of perhaps less unacceptable class inequality alongside a measure of perhaps not completely unhelpful entrepreneurial freedom, disturbing the basic set-up that is modern global capitalism not one iota. Even the self-labelled democratic socialist from Vermont, if he had full run of the house, would deliver little more than a new New Deal. Compared to FDR’s early rhetoric and policy agenda, let alone Norman Thomas’, Sanders’ democratic socialism is, I am afraid, weak brew and nothing like what is needed in postmodern times.

I do not want to leave an impression that politics concerns only state and economy, however preponderant they and the issues rooted in them are. We might add a third essential sphere to the analysis, the sphere of culture, and here we might identify that which underlies debates on abortion, racism, and sexuality as surface manifestations of what is really a debate about enlightenment. Call it w[h]ither enlightenment? Those fortunate enough to have access to accumulated knowledge about nature and humanity are in relatively superior position to weigh and assess the very meaning of our existence. Those less fortunate may be ignorant, or, more likely, immersed in irrational alternatives. As quantity and quality of education rise, so, too, does the citizenry’s inclination toward “progressive” political positions. In the opposite direction we find what Marx and Engels derided as “rural idiocy.”

But if it were only that easy, then we would have a clarity about what needs doing: more modern western education, more urbanization, and, voila, we have lessened if not eliminated socio-cultural backwardness and intellectual immaturity. The problem, however, is deeper, and is suggested by the fact that France gave the world “race,” Germany the Holocaust, and the United States of America the atomic bomb. The paragons of “rationality,” the societies and peoples regarded as locus classicus of science, technology, and cultural edification, have loosed destruction and mayhem upon the world and are no less responsible for McDonalds, Planned Residential Neighborhoods, and Planned Parenthood. Might there be fundamental problems with “science,” “enlightenment,” core Modern Western values? Should we continue to view Earth as for humanity? Should we view ourselves as bereft of spirit? Should our lives begin and end in hospital, with lots “General Hospital” viewing in between? For a moment, do not take a position on these questions. Just give yourself permission to imagine the vitality of the public conversation. Our politics might be less superficial and more engaging if we listened to, maybe not Marianne Williamson per se, but her learned sisters around this mishappened planet-based world.

So there you have it. To deepen political discourse for several hundred million voting-age adults in the United States (perhaps elsewhere too), we might try lifting stifling state secrecy (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, anyone?), talking seriously about how we can make a living in the twenty-first century (maybe start with the food system?), but save room for self-critical reflection on life and learning themselves (Francis and the Dali Lama may be willing to moderate a helpful discussion). Yes, with youth suicide rates through the roof, maybe we could spare time for talk about life worth living.

Steven Dandaneau is Associate Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University and author of Taking It Big (2001).