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The Presidential Election and the Prospects for a Decent Future

The content and character of the 2012 U.S. presidential election does not bode well for the human race and other life on Earth.

The content and character of the 2012 U.S. presidential election does not bode well for the human race and other life on Earth. If the American people do not broaden the sphere of public concerns that matter far beyond the ones being discussed in this the latest big money-big media -major party-narrow spectrum-corporate-managed candidate-centered “electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky’s phrase[2]), then there is not going to be a decent, desirable, or democratic future worth inhabiting. If we accept this and other such periodic U.S. elections as an adequate expression and spectrum of democratic politics and popular voice, we’re done for.

Eight Key Issues

Let’s take an honest look at the most crucial issues we face today. The first and top such issue to me and many others, including 97 percent of the world’s Earth scientists, is the ever more imminent existential threat posed by anthropogenic climate change, which is intensifying at a scale that has scared the Hell out of even some of the most pessimistic analysts. According to research released last June by science journal Nature,humanity is now facing an imminent threat of extinction – a threat caused by its reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The report reveals that our planet’s biosphere is steadily and ever more rapidly approaching a “tipping point,” meaning that all of the planet’s ecosystems are nearing sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to human life. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including… fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.” So says lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley. ”My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried,” another leading scientist said in a press release. “In fact, some are terrified.”[3] The remarkable hurricane that ravaged the eastern U.S. seaboard one week before the election was certainly a reflection of those human-made changes to no small degree.

A second top issue to me at least is one you don’t hear about that much anymore but which remains very real in ways that merit attention as we pass the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of nuclear war remains alive and well in the post-Cold War era.[4]

A third issue is mass poverty. Poverty is endemic across a world in which 3 billion struggle to get by on less than two and a half dollars a day. It’s a big problem in the United States, where one in six citizens live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty line, where one in three live at or below 150 percent of official poverty, where half the households are officially low-income, and more than a million children live at less than half the poverty level.

A fourth issue, intimately related to the third one, is inequality. Economic disparity is a huge problem in the United States, where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth, nearly two-thirds of the financial assets, most of the media and a possibly larger share of “our” elected officials. “We must make our choice,” the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1941, “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This is the issue Occupy Wall Street briefly placed front and center in the political culture just more than a year ago, before it was dismantled by force to make way for the quadrennial extravaganza – the dominant news story since early this year.

A fifth issue, intimately related to the fourth one, is the distinct likelihood of another epic financial crisis, something that many insiders are predicting in the wake of the federal government’s failure to significantly check the size and power of the leading financial institution after the 2007-08 meltdown.

[5] A sixth issue, inextricably linked to poverty and inequality, is the long-term structural employment and enforced obsolescence of tens of millions of formerly middle and working class Americans.

[6] A seventh issue is the deep persistent problem of societal and institutional racism. Racism deeply understood remains firmly embedded in the U.S., where black median household wealth is equivalent to 7 cents on the median white household wealth dollar, where black unemployment and poverty rates remain double those of whites, where blacks and Latinos together make up more than two thirds of the country’s unmatched prison population, where 1 in 3 black male adults is saddled with the crippling mark of a felony record, and where millions of black children are stuck in highly segregated, inadequately funded, and standardized test score-obsessed schools.

An eighth issue is American militarism, seen by most of the world as the single greatest threat to global peace. The Pentagon system accounts for nearly half the planet’s military expenditure and spends more than $1 trillion a year to maintain (among other things) more than 1000 U.S. military installations across more than 100 nations while granting gigantic cost-plus taxpayer subsidies to filthy rich high-tech American corporations like Boeing, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins, not to mention the oil access and protection service it provides to Exxon Mobil.

Ignoring, Worsening, and Dancing Around

When you hold all these and other key issues up against the campaign, the speeches, the ads, the so-called debates you generally see the two official candidates and campaigns responding with a combination of three basic things: (1) ignoring the problem; (2) saying things that promise to deepen the problem and (3) saying things that at best dance and diddle on the margins of the problem.

Climate change is for all intents and purposes absent in the 2012 election, except perhaps for Obama making a brief reference to the fact that he thinks that it exists. Romney now claims to doubt the existence of a scientific consensus on climate change, a Tea Party departure from his position years ago. Dedicated to the acceleration of the carbon industrial complex’s assault on the planet (the Republican candidate opposes even tax credits for wind power and promises to restore full mountaintop-removal privileges for coal extractors), Romney naturally offers no criticism of the critical leading role Obama played in undermining efforts to impose serious carbon emission limits on the rich nations and rapidly industrializing China.

[7] Most depressing of all, in the second debate, the two contenders went back and forth trying to outdo each other in touting their commitment to making American “energy independent” through fracking, expanded domestic and offshore drilling, and accelerated coal extraction. Neither of them seems to care all that much about what the world is going to look like after a few more decades of such practices. It is futile, perhaps, to hope that Hurricane Sandy – its remarkable fury driven by Greenhouse emission-warmed ocean waters[8] – will do much to penetrate the silence. The record setting heat, droughts, and forest and grass fires of 2012 didn’t do it, so how is yet another example of Mother Nature’s revenge going to break through the eco-cidal consensus with less than a week to go?

The nuclear war peril is absent from the campaign. If anything, Obama and Romney are making the danger worse by obsessively inveighing against the supposed dire nuclear threat posed by Iran, which is far from having anything close to a weapon, while ignoring the very real nuclear threat posed by Israel, which possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads and,, unlike Iran, refuses to allow inspections or sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both Romney and Obama stand with Israel in defiance of overwhelming global opinion – including majority Israeli opinion – supporting the obvious solution to the dangerous possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: turning the region into a nuclear weapons free zone[9]. To make matter worse, Romney insists on rattling sabers about nuclear Russia and its client Syrian regime in ways that strike careful observers as provocative. .

Poverty has been absent from the except for a few opportunistic references by the Republicans and some minor and indirect references in Bill Clinton’s convention speech. The poor remain starkly invisible in American electoral politics, reflecting the absence of influence that flows from their lack of money and also from decades of bipartisan color-coded demonization and shaming of the so-called underclass.[10] The candidates talk incessantly about “the middle class,” ignoring tens of millions struggling to meet basic needs. For what its’ worth, Mr. .01 percent Mitt Romney is so clueless about life beneath the aristocracy that he includes people making $250,000 a year in his definition of the middle class.[11]

Inequality is a non-issue beyond Obama claiming rather mildly that he and mega-billionaire Warren Buffett think the rich should pay slightly higher taxes on the model of the Clinton administration. The Republicans, who secretly want to increase inequality, counter that the Democrats want to “punish success.” Neither candidate calls for anything close to the real progressive taxation and other measures required if we are going to undo America’s status as the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation. There’s nothing anymore from Obama about the need to raise the minimum wage or to undertake significant federal jobs programs or to restore and enhance union organizing rights or to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to allow working class Americans to get back a share of what they’ve lost to the 1 percent over the last 40 years. We hear nothing from Obama of course about the real health care solution for working and middle class people, which would is Improved Medicare for All, single payer government health insurance for Americans under 65 as well as over.

Himself a creature and darling of Wall Street and corporate America, Romney naturally advances no criticism to how Obama loaded up his administration with vicious neoliberal Wall Street agents like Lawrence Summers (yes, Lawrence Summers[12]) and rushed to shield the nation’s top bankers from public criticism[13] and to extend the $14 trillion bailout of the very financial institutions that so recklessly crashed the national and global economy. We hear nothing critical from Romney about how the Obama team did all this while offering no serious mortgage relief to millions of underwater homeowners and after turning down an offer from the departing Bush administration to make the major banks write down middle class mortgages as a condition for the rapid release the release of toxic asset relief funds.[14] The supposed “Detroit” and “auto guy” Romney has nothing critical to say about how the Obama administration agreed in the name of “the sanctity of contracts.” to include giant bonus packages in its bailout payments to AIG executives (leading players in the toxic derivative mania that helped explode the economy in 2007 and 2008) even as it turned out at the same time to demand that the United Auto Workers accept significant cuts in their contractually stipulated benefits as part of the federal bailout package.[15] Romney naturally offers no objection to the mildness of Obama’s stimulus or to Obama’s insistent on passing a health reform that contained not so much as a mild public health insurance option and leaves the full cost-driving profit making power of the six big insurance companies and the top five pharmaceutical corporations intact.[16]

The threat of financial meltdown is absent from the campaign. Both candidates seem to think, falsely, that the 2009 Dodd-Frank bill was a major regulatory intervention in the financial sector, with Romney saying he’d repeal or adjust it and Obama basically trumpeting the legislation.

Racism and racial inequality are completely non-existent issues. They are more invisible than ever, cloaked in part by the deadly notion that the predominantly white electorate’s willingness to elect a certain black-but-not-like-Jesse candidate to the White House four years ago proves that racism is over as a barrier to black advancement and equality. Nobody raises a peep about racially disparate mass incarceration or segregated schools or black inner city neighborhoods with unemployment and poverty rates over 40 percent.

American militarism is of course a non-issue for both of the candidates. Yes, Romney accuses Obama of weakening the nation’s “defenses” and of apologizing for American power. Obama talks about the need to end wars and start “some nation-building at home.” But beneath all that blather, both contenders are engaged in the standard quadrennial contest to outdo the other one in proclaiming “exceptional” America’s God-given right to rule the world by military force. Romney offers no objection to Obama’s “kill list,” the president’s personally approved roster of alleged terrorists, including American-born targets, selected to be executed without trial with the flick of a drone switch, The challenger has no objection to the incumbent’s drone war, which has killed hundreds of innocent children and places much of Pakistan in a constant state of sleepless terror. Romney offers no criticism of Obama’s decision to commit U.S. forces to imperial war in Libya without seeking authorization from Congress – this in bold defiance of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. War Powers Act since the Libyan regime offered no real or imminent threat to Americans. [17]


If we accept the painfully constricted parameters of acceptable debate on display, if we recognize this and other U.S. election contests as the sum total of what passes for meaningful democratic politics and popular voice in the United States, the outlook for humanity and other sentient beings and living things is dim indeed. That’s an ominous statement, one this writer finds unavoidable given the dire threats. At the same time, there are reasons for hope. I am convinced on the basis of our history going back to the American Revolution through the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s rights movement, and, more recently to the Wisconsin rebellion and the Occupy Wall Street movement last year and the Chicago NATO protest and teachers’ strike this year and the Justice for Trayvon demonstrations and more this year….I am convinced on the basis of all this and more that we the people not only must but can act collectively beneath and beyond the quadrennial extravaganzas to broaden the range of acceptable debate and the field of relevant politics to include the issues that need to be addressed if the future is going to be worth inhabiting.

Selected Endnotes

[1] This essay is derived from a talk given at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa earlier this week: “Beyond the Quadrennial Extravaganza: the 2012 Elections and the Prospects for a Livable Future,” Grinnell College, Joe Rosenfeld Center, October 30, 2012. Special thanks to Vincent Kelly for inviting me and setting up the talk. The second half of the talk, focusing on how to respond to the narrow choices on offer in the election and to the electoral extravaganza more broadly, included ideas I’ve already written about at length at ZNet and other online venues.

[2] Noam Chomsky, “The Disconnect in American Democracy,” New York Times Syndicate. October 27, 2004, reproduced in Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 97-100.

[3] Common Dreams Staff, “Earth Facing Imminent Environmental Tipping Point: Report,” Common Dreams (June 7, 2012) at On the current grave and deepening environmental crisis, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could Be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, at;“Doomsday Clock Moves 1 Minute Closer to Midnight,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (January 10, 2012).; Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007).

[4] Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “Doomsday Clock.”

[6] For a chilling trade- and globalization-focused account of deepening long term joblessness over four decades particularly in U.S. manufacturing, see Donald Barlett and James Steele’s new book The Betrayal of the American Dream (New York: Public Affairs, 2012).

[7] On Obama’s principal part in the eco-cidal murder of the Copenhagen climate summit of December 2009, see Paul Street,The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), 26-28.

[8] Paul M. Barrett, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” Bloomberg Business Week (November 01, 2012

[9] Noam Chomsky, “Issues That Obama and Romney Avoid,” New York Times Syndicate, reprinted on ZNet, October 6, 2012 at

[10] Paul Street, “Poverty a Dirty and Missing Word at the Political Conventions,” ZNet (September 17, 2012), at

[11] Steven Rosenfeld, “Romney Says Typical Middle Class Households Earn $250,000 a Year,” AlterNet (September 14, 2012) at

[12] Who, as World Bank economist proclaimed in a December 12, 1991 memo that Africa was under-polluted since its population already didn’t live that long anyway and who has this to say in early 2009 about why he government shouldn’t go very far in equalizing access to health care: “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way people supposed to be treated.” For the World Bank memo, see For “the way people are supposed to be treated,” see Ron Suskind,Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 197.

[13] Suskind, Confidence Men, 233-242.

[14] Matt Stoller, “The Progressive Case Against Obama,” Salon, October 27, 2012 at

[15] Suskind, Confidence Men, 214; William Greider, “Obama’s Weird Idea of Auto Industry Rescue: Use Our Money to Build Factories Abroad,” AlterNew, May 11, 2009, at’s_weird_idea_of_auto_industry_rescue:_use_our_money_to_build_car_factories_abroad; Greg Palast, “Grand Theft Auto: How Stevie the Rat Bankrupted GM,”, June 1, 2009,; Floyd Norris, “U.S. Teaches Carmakers Capitalism,” New York Times, November 20, 2009. In the spring of 2009, the Nobel Prize-winning progressive economist Joseph E. Stigilitz notes, “an Obama administration official could say, with a straight face, that it was necessary to honor AIG bonuses, even for the officials who had led the company to need a $150 billion bailout, because of the sanctity of contracts; minutes later [that same official] could admonish autoworkers to accept a revision of their contract that would have lowered their compensation enormously.” Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 67.

[16] For an account of the abject corporatism of Obama’s heath insurance “reform,” see Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, Chapter 3: “Corporate-Managed ‘Health Reform.’”

[17] Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama,” The Atlantic (September 26, 2012), read at

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