Abandoned political campaign office in 2009. Credit: Flickr/meltedplastic.
Since the first Republican primary debate in May 2011, we have endured eighteen months of constant campaigning. Perhaps this campaign actually began earlier, in October 2010, when Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Presidential campaigns in the U.S. last far longer than in other democracies. Spending here is vastly greater. What do we citizens get out of it?
We get repetition. Obama and Romney boiled down their political visions into a few bite-sized slogans, which they repeated a thousand times. Even in their debates, they fell back on slogans, instead of explanations. Over the final months of this campaign we learned very little new about either candidate.
We get polls. The media devotes far too much money and column inches and screen time to constant polling. The Pew Research Center calculated that only 22 percent of news coverage concerned the candidates’ policy positions in the last two months. Instead we get poll after poll telling us how other people might vote in the future. Nate Silver, whose 538 blog provides the most interesting daily commentary on the polls, wrote last week that the polls just before the election looked like the polls in June. After four months of relentless campaigning, hundred of millions of dollars in ads, and four debates, few voters have changed their minds.
We don’t get what we need to know about the candidates. They tell us what makes them look good. Occasionally we get a peek behind the scenes, in unguarded moments, when candidates say what they really believe. Still, it’s all talk.
Only in real life can we get the information we need to make good judgments about candidates and policies. “Superstorm” Sandy gave us a frightful dose of real life. The East Coast, where I lived most of my life, and New York, where I grew up, were hit hard. Like the people in Joplin, Missouri, in New Orleans, and everywhere else where freakishly destructive weather wreaks havoc on human life, the Easterners will recover and rebuild. They will look out for each other as much as they can. They will be thankful for the prompt and professional help of charitable organizations.
And they will look to governments to do the rest. Local governments are the first line of public defense, but they are still trying to get the water out of their offices. The power, resources, and reach of state governments and especially the federal government have been crucial in saving lives, limiting damage, moving supplies in and water out, and restoring transport and commercial life. The photos of President Obama and Governor Christie together on the ground and in the air represent the response to disaster that a modern democratic nation must provide.
Now we see clearly what this campaign has been about. The Republican budget plan, authored by Paul Ryan, envisions drastic cuts in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and in other agencies like it. Mitt Romney wants the federal government out of the business of disaster relief. His philosophy says private enterprise can do everything better, so in the June 2011 Republican debate he specifically said about FEMA: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Moderator John King asked once more if Romney was referring to “disaster relief.” Romney said, “We cannot afford to do these things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.”
George Bush put a hack in charge of FEMA. Romney wants to make public disaster relief into an opportunity for investors to make money.
Those opportunities will increase in the future. Although Republicans continue to put politics above science, a growing majority of climate scientists believe that global warming is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. Capitalists agree: the giant German reinsurance company Munich Re issued a report in October titled “Severe Weather in North America.” It said that global warming “particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.”
Republican policy will mean relief for profit, outside of public control, in a new age of deadly storms. Democratic policy will mean strong public control of relief, combined with an effort to slow down global warming.
That’s what elections are about.