Bread and circuses—but real issues, too

By Chrystia Freeland
October 15, 2010

As the U.S. mid-term elections approach, it is easy to despair about the quality of this country’s political debate. Christine O’Donnell, the surprise Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for the Senate seat in Delaware, has captured the nation’s attention with her opposition to masturbation and a campaign ad in which she assures voters that she is neither a witch nor a graduate of Yale University. Here in New York, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, running for the governor’s office, has made his contribution to the carnival atmosphere by discussing his rival’s “prowess” and urging reporters to investigate whether he was a faithful husband.

Part of my job at the moment is appearing as a commentator on other people’s TV shows. Viewed from the green room or the studio, America’s political discourse can look particularly grim. I sometimes find myself in the role of finger-wagging, middle-aged scold calling for a discussion of global financial imbalances, rather than the latest juicy scandal or mockable example of political foot-in-mouth disease. TV producers, I’m afraid, find this schoolmarmish persona as unappealing as my kids do — and given the juicy alternatives available it is hard for me to blame them.

But the campaign trail has always been as much about providing a circus as it is about bread and butter issues. And, dipping just below the froth of the cable sound bites and the blogosphere, I’ve realized this campaign is actually revealing a country that is struggling seriously and passionately to come to grips with the very big issues it faces.

The first is America’s role in the world economy. After a century on top, this is the year when ordinary Americans have realized their country needs to re-establish a place for itself in the global economic order (unemployment at nearly 10 per cent is a powerful instructor). This epiphany doesn’t tend to express itself in measured debates about global financial imbalances or special drawing rights and the role they could play in creating a new reserve currency. Instead, the big focus has become China, with politicians in both parties arguing that the undervalued renminbi is a significant source of America’s woes and calling for a tough reaction, possibly including import tariffs.

Three economic mandarins I interviewed this week — Laura Tyson, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, Glenn Hubbard, a former advisor to President George W. Bush, and James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank — all told me that this China bashing was not entirely merited, and that it could have a counter-productive impact in Beijing. They are probably right. But it is always a mistake to confuse campaign advertisements with actual policies—most voters certainly don’t. And the fact that mainstreet Americans are grappling with their country’s changing role in the world — outsourcing is the theme of one of this season’s sitcoms — is significant and important.

The second big subject America is chewing over is its fiscal situation. Again, it is easy here to feel the heat and bemoan the lack of light: after all, the Republicans, who are making the most hay of this subject, are mostly guilty of, St Augustine-like, calling for a balanced budget, but declining to name what they would cut to get there. The bigger point, though, is that American voters care passionately about this issue. Even if you believe in a stimulus in the short term—and Hubbard surprised both me and Tyson this week by conceding that would be wise—it is surely a good thing for America and the rest of the world that the country cares about what is certain to be one of its toughest political challenges in the coming decade.

Finally, Americans are starting to wrestle with what is likely to be the third big issue of the next 10 years—the country needs to upgrade its physical and social infrastructure. The second problem—the budget deficit—will make this tough. But the first challenge can’t be resolved without it. Americans get that: hence the heated national debates around education, healthcare and signature projects like the New Jersey tunnel.

Of course, there is no national consensus on these three big questions, and most of the debate about them obscures as much as it reveals; that is called democracy and a free press. But what’s remarkable is how central these issues are to the current political debate. Look beyond the today’s latest gaffe, and you’ll find an America thinking hard about its place in the post-American century.

7 comments

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I was going to vote for the Republican in Delaware but once Christine assured me she wasn’t a witch, I had to vote for her. Sometimes you just can’t tell who’s a witch and who isn’t a witch nowadays.

Posted by stonedpeace | Report as abusive

Republicans offer idiotic and unworkable means to solve all of these problems (in fact, pseudomeans), and nevertheless the Americans will vote for them en masse. I am afraid that educated autocracy would be much more effective.

Posted by Heretic1 | Report as abusive

The twilight of greatness is often unobserved until it is way too late, because nations are so very convinced that the past will prolong itself way into the future. Which is a comforting thought; but history teaches us that its only constant is change.

So we delude ourselves that difficult and painful reform is simply not necessary; that somehow, whatever the problem, it’ll all work out. America has been living on borrowed time for more than a decade and observers outside the US, not hindered by any internal disability of telling the forest from the trees, can foresee a dismal future for Uncle Sam.

Repeatedly, he cannot seem to get his act together. Whether it is wasting a trillion dollars over the sandbox or diligence in the oversight and control of its internal markets — particularly the key market of finance.

The refusal to see the necessity of reforms is often greatest amongst those, despite their intelligence, cannot bring themselves to recognize the challenge of change. Conservatives conserve their notions of the past, sugar-coating them with the notion that they can indeed last forever — which necessitates the assumption that their beliefs were written immutably in stone.

And so they adhere ardently to their Politico-Religious Dogma going to great lengths to defend it, without the slightest bit of cogent reflection. Like all dogma, you take or leave it — but never justify or rationalize it.

Which leaves such politicians only one avenue of promotion — denigrating their adversaries. Which is why electoral debates are so uninteresting, since the mudslinging defiles everyone and enlightens no one.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

Someone needs to create some kind of law that automatically disqualifies any candidate who engages in personal attacks / smear campaigns and can’t focus on the issues at hand of the job they’re applying for.

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

For the most part, I agree with Chrystia Freeland. However, I disagree that we cannot blame the media for their willingness to continually concentrate on frivolous sensationalism, instead of discussing the issues. Everyone knows that all politicians have some skeletons in the closet. Having studied journalism and media communications in college, I am constantly reminded of the degradation of what is actually “news”. What happened to the Edward R. Murrow’s and the Walter Cronkite’s? News programs have become no better than entertainment shows like “Entertainment Tonight”. When I watch politics I feel like I’m getting an “ET” update. Once the news programs became part of the ratings system, the quality degraded more and more. I don’t want to hear the news anchor’s interpretation of the politicians speech. Save that for a show which discusses such things. These people are constantly trying to tell you how to think about what you just heard.

But Chrystia is right about some of our major issues which the public has been proving are important to them. Its just a shame we have to have our own personal filters on 24/7 in order to traverse the political landscape and make a good decision on how we vote.

Posted by Blackbird1996 | Report as abusive

Let’s discuss the core issue these days, but with some intelligence. Ask the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) what is the “real unemployment rate”. It is not what was changed to the official unemployment rate that the BLS also reports. Some time ago politicians wanted a lesser rate reported, so they came up with the idea of “lowering the cost” of the official rate and no longer include all the unemployed people who no longer collect unemployment and are now considered to no longer be looking for work or not in the labor pool, but not by choice.

The BLS reports both numbers – no cost saved – and some media such as MSNBC report the “real unemployment rate”, now deemed by the BLS as the “underemployment rate” and which they claim still underreports actual unemployment.

The media is complicit in the scam every time it only reports the pseudo official unemployment rate. Let’s track the real unemployment rate and search and discuss ways to reduce it.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Chrystia Freeland you are a refreshing cool breeze of common sense and sanity in the desert of sensationalism and hot air that is Television News today.

I do wish you would get your own show so you could set the tone of discussions and focus on real solutions to these vital and critical issues your article highlights. I would be the first to support your shows sponsors or to sponsor it myself! I am always so relieved to see you on CNN or another show because I know you will help bring the conversation back to reality and help create more light than heat on a subject.

Your show might be titled “Based On What?” and you would interview some of the Country’s and Worlds brightest minds to propose their solutions for our economic and other problems and then ask the question that no other interviewer on TV seems to ask; “Based on what”? Anyone can have an opinion but seldom if ever do I see a Journalist ask the person they are interviewing what facts they are using to base their opinions on.

Some people say we have too short an attention span, we are too shallow and self centered to support a show of this kind. I think if we give in to the Networks desires to put out shows that cater to the worst in all of us that’s an terrible indictment of our society and of Journalism. We want to know the facts. We want to know the truth about where our jobs have gone and what the Banks are doing with our money and why we can’t get loans. I hope you can get your own show to bring more of your sharp intellect, common sense and positive attitude to a Nation that is hungry for and deserving of a better brand of TV News Journalism.

Posted by JosephSegal | Report as abusive