30 October 2008

Election meditations

What's this presidential election all about? According to a headline I spotted in the Spokane newspaper last weekend, "Obama vs. McCain: It's About Your Money." Later, I tracked the article down to the Wall Street Journal.) My spirit rebelled at the impression the headline made on me--am I truly supposed to evaluate these candidates for a position of importance to the whole world solely on whether I'd end up with more cash if the right candidate won?

The WSJ article actually doesn't say that--the body of the article is simply a summary of the candidates' proposals as they might affect a family's finances, and doesn't say that other issues are unimportant. But the relentless demand for oversimplification in campaign messaging has led to a lot of pandering by both major campaigns--for example, Joe the Plumber and the whole phony "socialism" ploy in McCain's case, and the Obama Web site's tacky Obama-Biden Tax Calculator.

It was refreshing to hear one of Obama's spokespeople say straight out that in an Obama presidency, wealthy people will be asked to contribute somewhat more to the country's well-being. But in any case, incremental tax changes really do not even touch the stakes for the U.S. in this election. The factors I care most about are vision and competence, or rather, competence in the service of vision.

Senator John McCain's campaign has been problematic for those of us inclined to like him. Senator Bob Dole was a much better person than he appeared to be during his campaign against Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996, and that better person reappeared after his loss. I believe that the better McCain will reappear after this year's election, whether he wins or loses. But if he loses, it will be in part because he has been undercut constantly by his own campaign. He and his allies have criticized Senator Obama for lack of leadership experience, but McCain's own leadership of his campaign has been flawed, both managerially and ethically. (In contrast, Obama's huge organization has completely redefined the standards for campaign management.) McCain's "leadership" has been petulant, impetuous, and whiny. He has griped and sniped his way through one shallow "you don't really know Obama" tack after another, almost completely abandoning any attempt at a contest of higher ideals. His "country first" tagline might count as an exception to this abdication of higher ground, but this laudable message has mainly served as a platform to tout his own biography and to belittle his opponent, rather than to call the nation to a vision of a better America or to name specific ways his audience could put country first. In contrast, Obama ties college assistance to community or national service, challenges families to take more responsibility for raising children, and calls the whole nation to a new sense of unity and a reduction of our "empathy deficit."

We approach truth through dialogue, and a greater reliance on dialogue is one fruit that I'd hope for from an Obama victory. Many of the USA's biggest problems will not be solved easily by either candidate, even with a majority in both houses of Congress. In fact, too many of our problems result from longstanding bipartisan ignorance or prejudice--for example, our struggle with radical Islam and our relationship with Russia have been badly mismanaged by both Democrats and Republicans. But a president who values deep and reflective dialogue has at least some chance of opening up new paths forward on these and other accumulated dysfunctions. And only a committed two-way communicator can make a start on turning us as a nation away from an imperial global impact that manages to be both naive and hypocritical at the same time (as if our crusade for freedom had nothing to do with access to resources!!), toward a new vision of collective security.

In the specific case of Russia, the themes of a deeper dialogue are beginning to emerge as American and Russian politicians and academics consider the fallout from the brief Russian/Georgian war of this past summer. As Stephen Sestanovich writes in Foreign Affairs,
What the war has done ... is subject the high-stakes and now disappointing U.S.-Russian relationship to a top-to-bottom reassessment--its first real reconsideration since the Cold War. Suddenly, saying that Washington has to cooperate with Moscow when possible and push back emphatically when necessary no longer seems a fully satisfactory formula. Determining the right balance between cooperating and pushing back--between selective engagement and selective containment--has become the main task of U.S. policy toward Russia. This effort will surely last well into the next U.S. administration, providing a key challenge for the new president and his advisers as they refashion the United States' role in the world.
Despite some hints of the obligatory disapproving global-schoolmarm voice that Americans seem to adopt when expressing dissatisfaction with other countries, Sestanovich's article is an excellent summary of the tasks facing new Washington leadership. Here are two of the themes for dialogue that came to me from his article:

First: There is no grand paradigm for US-Russian relations ("moral consensus," "common interests," "strategic compatibility") that can trump what actually guides Russian leaders--what I call a sort of "structural pragmatism." What I mean is that Russian leaders respect national and international structures--borders, rules, organizations--that objectively serve them well and seem fair. Any structure that seems slanted against them (including, as Sestanovich points out, the United Nations), they cheerfully ignore, but they generally respect agreements and rules that seem fair, transparent, and serviceable. They contrast this principle with the American tendency to adopt two-story policies--a showy top story decorated with ideals about democracy and freedom concealing a foundation of arguably self-serving political or economic goals. Given this Russian attachment to structural pragmatism, how can we expand the structures? How can we build common, inclusive structures where we pragmatically pursue the same goals? How can we in fact increase the overlap between decisionmakers of both countries, whether by increased exchanges, broader communication channels, greater cooperation in research, reduced barriers to travel and residency in each others' countries, and experiments in new international organizations?

Secondly, we desperately need a global dialogue on the meaning of nationhood and sovereignty that doesn't only take place during a totally polarizing crisis. We invoke the mythology of the sacredness of national sovereignty whenever it is convenient--thus we designate U.S. allies on the very border of Russia (for example, Georgia) and declare their boundaries inviolate despite centuries of complex nuances in their relationship with their neighbor. We even suggest NATO membership despite the absurdity of defending them militarily from Russia's overwhelming superiority--a prospect that is even more absurd in view of the leverage this would give to an ambitious and unstable politician such as Georgia's current president. And, on the other hand, the whole world has watched us dismiss Iraq's claims to sovereignty in the aftermath of 9/11, as we have done many times before when it suited us to intervene. Meanwhile, victims of mass cruelties in Congo, Somalia, the Sudan suffer and die wondering why a watching world doesn't mobilize to save them.

When is an international boundary a useful convention; when is it subject to question by crosscutting ties of history or ethnicity with neighbors; when is it compromised by hazards that know no borders (pollution, disease, terrorism); and what is our response when private interests, such as multinational corporations, actually overwhelm the regulatory capacities of nations? And what do we do about breakaway regions (Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and so on) where claims of democratic self-determination clash with the dominant country's aroused sense of righteous nationalism? And what happens when those separatist agendas become enmeshed with imperial rivalries? South Ossetia is a perfect case: now it claims to be an independent country of 70,000 people. With all due respect to the desires of its population, is this a viable "nation"--and in what kind of a world would it remain viable? Or is it simply destined to be a candidate for absorption into one or another of its snarling neighbors?

Surely these are themes that the adults we choose to lead our nations can consider in dialogue.

The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an interesting editorial, "The world awaits Obama but could also accept McCain." If it weren't already 3 a.m. I'd give a try at translating, but Google doesn't do too bad a job....

Righteous links: While we're on Russia: Sean's Russia Blog on the 90th anniversary of the Komsomol. ~~ U.S. citizens: please endorse a presidential executive order banning torture. ~~ Democrats and Republicans agree on something: anxiety. ~~ According to this interesting article by Raul Zibechi, "Pentecostalism is the largest self-organized movement of urban poor in the world." (Thanks to Ricardo Cabezas for the reference.) I was glad to see more recent research covering some of the territory in David Stoll's 1991 study, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? ~~ And what about Sarah Palin's supposed Pentecostalism? See this NYT article. I personally don't like seeing her faith ridiculed, since it has significant overlap with mine! There are substantial reasons to question her readiness for high office; don't counter superficiality with more superficiality!

Albert Collins' economic blues: "If money were trouble, I'd be a millionaire."


Bill Samuel said...

Maybe it's less about our money than the candidate's money. By spurning public financing and raising the unprecedented amount of $600 million for his campaign, Obama was able to blanket the country with advertising and finance a campaign organization far surpassing anything seen before. He gambled that Americans wouldn't care about his ethics, and that he could buy the election. The gamble looks like it will succeed.

OTOH, it may be better for McCain that he couldn't compete in advertising, given that the ads he did have were so loathsome. McCain gave up his ethics in a different way, throwing out absurd charge after absurd charge.

A pox on both of their houses.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Bill! There's a side of me that is ready to acknowledge that anyone who runs a credible presidential election campaign is already a hardball politician, whatever actual pitch he (she) throws. That side of me prefers to remember that politics is simply very elaborate dominance behavior in our community of human animals. Idealists like me are, practically speaking, congenitally disqualified.

The other side of me would still like to be part of a community that exercises whatever influence it can aggregate in order to be sure that the hardball politician who wins is the one whose remaining values are the ones most likely to benefit the nation and world. To carry out this desire it isn't necessary to pretend that the person is perfect or that the opponents are fatally flawed.