What’s NOT Being Discussed in This Election Season?

[1] After Journal of Lutheran Ethics invited me to consider the question above for this special election issue, I decided to frame my own reflections by way a broader conversation with a few colleagues from my institution, Goucher College in Baltimore. I gathered together Sociologist Janet Shope, Political Scientist Nick Brown and International Studies Professor Eric Singer over lunchtime in the faculty lounge this past week.

[2] One issue wove its way through all the various missing discussion items we threw on the table in our hour-long gathering: the dearth of sustained and deep conversation about the many issues facing us in this election season. Why is this the case? Surely many factors contribute to the present scarcity, including the gamesmanship of political campaigns, the combined shallowness and saturation of media coverage, the ever-declining American attention span fed by increasingly shorter sound bites, the deepening political polarization.

[3] For instance, Eric reflected, our national discussion of the war in Iraq and war on terrorism has been so tightly scripted by simple binaries, such as the terms of security and liberty versus tyranny and insecurity. This excludes a world of complexities. The only question debated seems to be whether we are doing the right job, or a failed job in preserving our security as a nation, leaving out all the questions regarding the moral standing of the U.S. in the world, who we are and how we project ourselves.

[4] Janet agreed, and added that even the way that Kerry has attempted to make any parallel between Iraq and Vietnam has been mostly on the level of personal experience, “who bled more, who got away with more.” Does direct experience of war better prepare a person to serve as commander in chief? We don’t seem to get to this question, at least not in any depth.

[5] Nick noted the polarization that has contributed to an impoverished national political conversation taking place in sound bites. A friend who is very right-wing sends him all sorts of email attachments, “cute, catchy” summaries of deeply thorny, complex issues, the result being only a greater trivializing of the seriousness of the issues, such as “Bush won the war in Iraq faster than Janet Reno beat back the Branch Davidians.” How does one possibly move past such a blithe comparison to a deeper conversation?

[6] What is it with the national preoccupation with Bush and Kerry’s hair, with their ability or inability to make us laugh at their jokes, or prove who is more macho? Who and what is keeping the heat on these ridiculous items in place of a real discussion about the bifurcation in our political conversation between what’s going on internationally and domestically, and the seemingly unmentionable divide between the public and private spheres?

[7] So, I asked my colleagues, are you feeling pretty hopeless? Yes and no. No, because it’s likely that the republic will continue to survive. Yes, because even in our own small setting, this liberal arts college, we seem to experience a similar hesitancy among our colleagues to engage in substantive conversation with one another beyond a shallow level, for all the same reasons that are applicable to the national level. The final thought was shared by all: we need to find more ways to do this!