It’s no secret that the Presidential election has narrowed down to major candidates who are each distrusted or even loathed by a substantial portion of the electorate. However, the deeper problem is that neither candidate has proposed an adequate response to, or even given priority to, the biggest challenges of our age.
Hillary and other speakers at the Democratic National Convention made the best case for her that could be made, whether it was the President ‘s noting that her Federal experience prior to the Presidency exceeds Bill’s or his own, Chelsea’s praise for Hillary’s mothering skills and her devotion to kids and women, Bill’s charming "aw shucks" tales of her toughness and of their courtship at Yale Law School and elsewhere, or Hillary’s own earnest imitation of an Eisenhower Republican who somehow also feels the bern while breaking a glass ceiling. Okay, good rhetorical job. Applause for all these main figures and for others in the Wells Fargo arena in Philadelphia.
So what’s the problem?
It’s not that lawyerly promises in an acceptance speech or in a platform document signify little about how a successful candidate will actually govern. The problem is that neither of the major candidates has presented an adequate policy to deal with the greatest challenges of our time. Meanwhile, the short-term problem is that Hillary is likely to continue the economic practices that led to the rise of Trump. In four years, what if the pain felt by Trump backers grows even worse, and if more people are affected?
Even if we don’t want to elect an ignorant, egotistical, sociopathic fraud and cheat, with no programs other than saying "trust me," where are the programs to deal adequately with global warming and with the persistent dangers of nuclear war? Oh, Hillary’s opponent in the primaries did repeatedly invoke global warming, and even post a policy paper calling it "the single greatest threat facing our planet," which is the overwhelming consenses of scientists, but has anybody designed an actual program for making the transition to renewable energy? And where is the program for dealing with the danger of nuclear war rather than creating "failed states"?
Senator Sanders has done a historical service in raising the issues of gross economic inequality, in revealing the plight of many young people and poor people, in reawakening the spirit of the New Deal, and in trying to start a "political revolution." However, unless the greenhouse gas situation is adequately addressed, with more than ridiculous self-congratulation in Paris, crucial issues of inequality and of women’s rights will be submerged.
In Philadelphia at least we kept hearing that the US is "exceptional." An exceptional people would deal with reality, not only with gross economic inequality but also with threats so big that politicians so far avoid discussing detailed responses. It will not be enough to feel superior to those who deny man-made global warming and to reassure each other that "we respect science." Not enough to observe that if your ideology has little to offer to any adequate solution, then it’s natural to deny. But is it helpful to respect science but not respond adequately to it?
To return to gender, as someone who had the benefit of learning from a strong mother, strong sisters, and a strong wife, I’m thrilled that girls will grow up feeling a that woman can be top dog (that Hillary can do what Bill and other guys did), thrilled that we’ll have more woman in top government jobs, in board rooms, and in other seats of power, that Hillary, if she wins, might follow the example of the leader of the land to the north and appoint a cabinet that looks like the country (for example, half women).
But the job of a leader is not only to celebrate the U.S., but also to challenge it. Yes, an exceptional people would deal with reality. In an age of globalization (empowered by the triumph of economic neo-liberalism, by giant container ships, and by the internet), what will bring back the good (manufacturing) jobs? In the absence of good pay, where will the economic demand come from, to support U.S. businesses? To the extent that we suffer economic frustration, what will prevent a Commander in Chief, relatively free abroad, from taking risks that could lead to nuclear war?
Since we have lived since 1945 in a nuclear age, without a subsequent bomb exploding in war, and don’t see an alternative to a system of threats of retaliation or even first-strike, we may underestimate the dangers. When asked how we have avoided nuclear war, several well-informed observers have used the word "luck." These observers include a former National Security adviser (McGeorge Bundy , the author of Danger and Survival, the most thorough reporter on military nuclear accidents ((Eric Schlosser in Command and Control) and a former Secretary of Defense (William J. Perry in My Journey o the Nuclear Brink). In Moscow in 1986 I discussed another nuclear near-miss with an adviser who sat at Khrushchev’s elbow during the Cuban Missile Crisis ("A Nuclear Secret").
Even if Trump is defeated in the fall, even if Bernie and others succeed in creating a "political revolution," some of the lethal dangers would remain unaddressed or without adequate solutions. We are settling for much too little. Some are depressed about the "lesser evil-ism" of a vote for the Democratic ticket. Others of us are concerned about the lesser evil-ism in almost all major campaigns to date.
Consider, for example, the contrast to the early 1980s. Without arguing that nuclear abolition is the answer, I want to observe that the country was then in the midst of a widespread campaign called the "nuclear freeze," including the largest rally in U.S. history, held in Central Park. Then a book could be published calling for nuclear abolition (Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth). Then the super- powers could agree to eliminate a whole class of weapons (intermediate-range missiles). Then at a summit meeting in Reykjavik the leaders of the US and its main rival could come close to agreeing to get rid of all nuclear weapons, leading the poker-faced Secretary of State to blurt out, "let’s do it."
In contrast, our hopes have become small. One side defends the absurdity that "the market" can solve all problems if only "guv-ment" would "get out of the way," while the other side acts as if becoming the 55th country to break the glass ceiling and elect a feminine head of state will be enough. Yes, the latter would be helpful, but it’s not nearly enough, nor are vague promises and gestures. Standing up for women is a long-overdue job and it’s not fair that we also need to do other things at the same time, but we do.
If Hillary is only a third term of Obama’s hopefulness , in the face of GOP obstructionism, the conditions that facilitated Trump’s rise will only get worse. What then? We have to think big, or it may soon be too late.