April 23, 2008
Politicians Hide from the Real IssuesBy J.R. Dunn
It appears that this is going to be yet another campaign with little or nothing in the way of real issues.
Oh, there are "issues". Or rather, "Issues", with that opening capital definitely emphasized. Issues such as "Race", "the Environment", "the Economy", and so on, huge, shapeless near-abstractions whose connection to the world as it actually exists is tenuous, if not outright metaphysical.
Take "Race", for instance. We're repeatedly informed that America has a problem with "Race" of crisis proportions. As evidence, we're told that Americans of African descent suffered under slavery, were considered constitutionally to comprise only three-fifths of a person, and even after emancipation were subject to the indignities of legal segregation. But if we take note that all these factors are receding well beyond the historical horizon - even segregation ended close to half a century ago -- and attempt to focus on something more current and concrete, we find very little. In the 2000 election, racial antagonism had a face, that of James Byrd, atrociously murdered by three out-of-control white hicks. But to find a similar incident, we need to go back to Howard Beach in 1986 (seriously ambiguous incidents involving law enforcement such as the Rodney King and Amadou Diallo cases are not at all the same thing).
Such events are shocking in large part because they're so rare. Which might lead us to suspect that racial relations in this country are in something less than a crisis state, and that the abstraction of "Race" has been brought up for other purposes.
A look at the other mammoth "Issue" suggests much the same thing. We're told that "the Economy" is in a state rivaling the Great Depression, if not (as suggested by such steady, reliable figures as George Soros) the Medieval Depression of the 14th-15th centuries. The disaster is universal. Half-measures won't do. A complete reconstruction of the American economy must take place, based on the strictest principles of planning and centralization.
But looking around, we see "help wanted" signs still visible even in economically troubled areas. We find that the current unemployment rate, supposedly a tidal wave of misery and hopelessness, is now at 5.1%, still below the historic average of 5.2%. We see a market that refuses to drop, that for the past week has been clawing its way back to last Fall's 13,000 mark.
So too with "the Environment". Global warming, to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, is not only worse than we imagine, it is worse than we can imagine. Scarcely a day goes by without the appearance of more "evidence" of runaway warming, leading to ever starker predictions. All this despite the fact that the northern hemisphere is emerging from the harshest winter in decades (Oregon and Washington state are even now digging out from the season's final blizzards).
The warmists themselves have been forced to acknowledge that nothing resembling actual warming has occurred since 1998, only to add that temperature rises will recur in 2009. Or maybe the year after that.
It's more than evident that once we leave the vast, windswept stage of abstractions and return to the quotidian world, the "Issues" consistently dissipate into ghosts and shadows. All the same, we're assured that these are the topics that count, that matter to people, that must be debated in the 2008 campaign.
It's not as if there was any lack of real issues -- defined as developments that actually have important and undeniable effects on the citizens of this country, effects serious enough that they need to be addressed by some means political or otherwise. Recent examples include:
These issues have a direct impact on anybody who drives a car, has a daughter, walks the streets after dark, or eats, which, if I am not completely mistaken, covers most of us. Yet they have been virtually ignored by the candidates. John McCain, with his proposal for relief from gasoline taxes, is a partial exception. But apart from obligatory sneers at the oil companies, silence otherwise reigns. And even Mr. Straight Talk has nothing to say about the other issues.
This silence is easily explained. Concrete issues in many cases have political causes, and would respond to political solutions. The food crisis was triggered in large part by a Congressional mandate that a fifth or more of the grain crop be used for ethanol. OPEC acts with impunity thanks to the fact that the U.S. long ago curtailed most domestic oil drilling to fulfill a Green agenda. (As for the "peak oil" myth, during the past two weeks it was discovered that a Midwestern field thought to contain only 250 million barrels actually contains over 4 billion, while at the same time Brazil discovered an offshore field of more than 34 billion barrels. Yes, peak oil is inevitable -- sometime in the 30th century.)
Although the causes of crime are well understood, government insists on behaving as if it were something on the order of a natural phenomenon, utterly and forever beyond human control. STDs among teenagers can be directly correlated with sex education. (Anyone doubting this is invited to view the "how-to" manuals used in sex education courses). Any of these problems could be reversed or curtailed by political means. Which would require a commitment to action from the candidates, a commitment that would call for active effort, be subject to possible failure, and might alienate large numbers of supporters.
The "Issues", on the other hand, are largely metaphysical, where they exist at all, and require nothing in way of actual response. For an example, we need only go back to "Race". The solution here, according to Barack Obama, is to hold a "national conversation" on the topic. It has somehow escaped the notice of the Illinois Moses that such a conversation has been ongoing since the end of the Civil War (if not the appearance of the Abolitionists thirty years previously), resulting precisely in the world that we see around us. But that's beside the point. What matters is that Obama made the suggestion ("boldly" and "eloquently", his supporters would add). Nothing else in the way of effort or application is required for him to reap his bounty of virtue and righteousness. That's all that he was looking for, much the same as Bill Clinton when he made the exact same suggestion a decade ago. In both cases, the "solution" to the "Race" issue can be defined as virtual politics.
George Orwell repeatedly warned against abstraction in politics. Abstract concepts quickly become meaningless in the political context, opening the door to the falsification and corruption of ideas, turning communication into rhetoric, and in the end, acting as a mask behind which power is wielded. This is what we risk -- a system in which politics has become completely decoupled from reality. It's easy to grasp why Obama or Madame Hillary would find such a situation congenial.
That's the reason that we can't expect politicians to abandon the use of meta-issues in their campaigns. They're too useful a tool, providing large benefits with very little in the way of effort or risk. A politician can say just about anything on the abstract level without being called to account for it. Furthermore, the public has come to expect this kind of thing. You can find the same style of abstraction debated in the most heated terms in comment sections all across the Web, exactly as if it meant something.
But meta-issues can be useful -- as a tool in the kit of the intelligent voter, a means of gauging a politician's sense of moral seriousness. Meta-issues are a stratagem, a form of demagoguery, a species of lie. A politician who operates solely amid their glowing mists, drifting from one abstraction to the next, feet never touching the ground, is a pol who is living in his own separate reality, and as such deserves a good bouncing come Election Day. We can start with Obama and Hillary. If they bounce high enough, maybe the rest will get the message.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.