This remains a most disconcerting election season. Trump continues with his outrageous statements and the media — all of it — gives him far more space than he deserves or that can be judged informative, much less remotely evenhanded. At this juncture, his prospects seem to be fading, but there are still months to go. We dare not be complacent. Once on the ballot anyone can win. Hillary is running a seemingly effective, albeit predictable, campaign, but she continues to suffer an enthusiasm gap. At this point in 2008 there were endless Obama bumper stickers and lawn signs around the Chapel Hill bubble where I live. That’s not true now. Even so, she is up in the high single digits here in North Carolina as is Roy Cooper running against Governor Pat McCrory. Deborah Ross has taken a small lead against Senator Richard Burr. A victory for all thee would be a really big deal.
Money continues to play alarmingly large in our politics. It’s not only what is spent on elections but its corrupting influence on office holders at all levels. For sure the Clintons are part of that culture having leveraged public office into what made 2015 a $10 Million income year. It’s a factor in Hillary’s trust problem but, as Mark Leibovich wrote so compellingly in his 2013 book This Town, it is a corruption that is both pervasive and party agnostic. In fact, it may be the only truly consistent bi-partisanship left. No wonder so many Americans are turned off, or worse tuned out. That’s likely the case for many who succumbed to “the Bern” but also for the Hillary followers who support her “despite” not necessarily “because”.
I’m appalled by the money, but truth be told it’s not what really concerns me most about this and other elections. What bothers me much more is what our elections are not about — the missing conversation. It’s what isn’t being discussed or, perhaps more to the point, isn’t honestly being discussed. The Donald has built his campaign around the myth of straight talk. He isn’t talking honestly about the real issues that confront us in the twenty-first century, and that’s being generous. Sadly neither is Secretary Clinton or a host of other candidates for high office. When it comes to campaigns and beyond straight, honest talk is simply MIA, missing in action.
Here money isn’t at fault, rather it’s that we have become so hyper partisan. Trump loves complain about “political correctness”. It may surprise you, but I totally agree that we do have a serious political correctness problem. Of course, it’s not the one he dwells on — the one that concerns women, minorities, LGBTs, and immigrants — the one to which he responds with overt sexism, racism and xenophobia. My problem is with the political correctness born out of our poisonous hyper partisan time. Regardless of whether we consider ourselves liberal or conservative (however defined) we have all fallen victim to what may be more accurately branded “partisan correctness”. Whether Republican or Democrat there are just things you don’t say out loud or with which you can’t agree or even consider. In some cases, we dare not let ourselves think certain thoughts or ask even obvious questions. We have become a divided nation marching in lock step to the “party (of choice) line”. It’s bad enough that some people operate under the uncritical banner of “my country right or wrong”, much worse is “my party right or wrong”. That doesn’t make for honest conversation, the kind that’s MIA.
During presidential campaigns we talk around subjects or reduce them to questionable sound bites. Candidates carelessly attack trade as if there were any chance to avoid global commerce in our interconnected interdependent world. They talk about restoring manufacturing as if the high employment factories of an earlier time even existed in 2016. David Ignatius wrote an excellent column last week’s Washington Post entitled, “The brave new world of robots and lost jobs”. He spoke to the truth of what not only manufacturing but other aspects of our current working world will be in the years to come, and often already are. His underlying implied message is what we all know: technology changes everything. You won’t hear that on the campaign trail. It isn’t only climate change that’s subject to denial, so too is the reality about which Ignatius writes, the one that is full blown now not in the distant future.
It’s totally dishonest to say that manufacturing as we knew it is coming back. But what’s most dishonest, and fingers need to be pointed in every direction, is that we really aren’t having a serious fact-based conversation about the many issues that confront and will directly impact upon us now and going forward. The income gap between most of us and Bernie’s, “millionaires and billionaires” is real, unfair and socially unsustainable. But more significant is the question of how the vast majority of us will be able to earn a living wage and hopefully enter/ remain in the middle class. That is a far more fundamental problem than income inequality.
We should all feel for all the technology-displaced workers, but feeling is not enough. I applaud Joe Biden’s effort to find a cancer cure, but what we may need more is a moon shot effort to get our workforce retrained, both the unemployed and the currently employed who will be made redundant by technology in the years ahead. The unemployed and underemployed workers surely have good reason to complain. But they also need to accept the reality they know is here to stay. They must both pursue and demand the training required to compete in today and tomorrow’s workforce. That conversation is MIA this political season, especially with rust belt and coal country audiences.
It’s very easy for us to blame the politicians for this evasion of truth telling. To be sure, they often deserve it. But they only tell us what we want to hear, what we’ve made clear we demand to hear. So we need a little straight talk about ourselves. You and I are equally to blame for this MIA conversation, this dangerous denial, and this refusal to get real or serious. It’s easy to say we’ve not been properly prepared for the brave new world, but it would be more honest to admit that we citizens, like that famous monkey, have had our hands covering our ears, eyes and mouths avoiding the evil called unwanted truth. In that sense, we play a significant role in corrupting the political class, threatening them with a withheld vote if they don’t tell us what we want to hear, make promises that we both know can’t be kept.
Candidates — the political class as a whole — and we the people conspire together to skirt or totally avoid a candid, truly relevant conversation. What about the press? I don’t want to be unfair and David Ignatius’ column cautions me not to paint too broad a bush here, but the media class as a whole is failing us miserably. Our elections, especially those for high offices, are covered as little more than horse races and we consumers of content didn’t start that ball rolling. Much of the coverage we see focuses, sometimes exclusively, on who is up and who is down. Perhaps the candidates themselves take polls, but it’s the media that have made them the central story. When interest in polls lag just a bit, there is always the gotcha story or, this year especially, the outrageous attention getting rhetoric. Just look at the front/home pages of our newspapers, the stories given airtime on our TVs and the leads of our magazines, print or digital. Ask yourself, is that really news, or as the NY Times would put it, is it really ”fit to print”? Too often my answer is, “I don’t think so”. Leave aside some opinion pieces and serious investigative reporting, how often do you really encounter something of substance as opposed to one of those unending horse race stories. You can say that Americans are often uninformed, but is the media contributing to the conversation we need or are have they blurred, even forgotten, the line between entertainment and news? You know the answer to that. I think our public corporations have been undermined by Wall Street’s demand for quarterly earnings. So, too, has our press has been compromised by an insatiable pursuit of ratings. Both have left all of us in a very precarious state.
The crazy thing, and perhaps the conversation most avoided, is that a lot of people upon whom we rely are being paid and not doing their job, properly or at all. Speak of MIA, Congress, many of whose members pontificate about fiscal responsibility, heads that list. Harry Truman famously railed against the “do-nothing 80th Congress”, but we now know that “he ain’t seen nothing” when it comes to an abrogation of responsibility. We may see them mouthing off on C-Span, but it’s a mirage. When it comes to fulfilling their employment contract, they are nothing more than highly paid “no-shows”. Serious talk being MIA is a failure on the campaign trail. But the lack or serious honest conversation and carrying out the duties for the Congress we have hired is nothing less than criminal — in my view, an indictable offense. Not listening to one another is for sure disrespectful, but all of us are paying the price for a bunch of slackers who think they are entitled to the seats that they occupy. And we the people aren’t talking about that, aren’t demanding that they simply do their jobs, holding them individually to task.
It’s an old cliché to suggest that we get the government, and relative to this post the press, we deserve. I’ve made it clear that we are not total innocents in the avoidance of the conversations we so need. True, but looking back at the primary season and the 2016 general election campaigns so far, I feel we deserve more, we deserve better. I despair about the conversation that’s missing in action and the high cost of that silence.