Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

It's time to comment on the state of the elections, especially for my non-American readers. People outside the U.S. must be shaking their heads in disbelief that the U.S. presidential race is so close. George Bush, in addition to being an unpopular president abroad, is wildly unpopular at home--71% disapprove of his performance in office, a record in U.S. history. The American economy and job losses are the worst since the Great Depression in the 1930's. The budget surplus of the Clinton years has long since disappeared--and the deficit will keep on ballooning with the latest bailout proposal, a byproduct of the un-fiscal policies of the last eight years. America is borrowing from China to wage a war in Iraq against a fictitious enemy, while the Iraqi government runs a $80 billion budget surplus. All but the wealthiest of Americans, asked the question "are you better off today than you were eight years ago" would have to answer no---even those who have avoided personal debt and invested wisely are only treading water because of the ballooning debt and eroded value of the dollar. In my life, I cannot remember a worse time--and I remember Richard Nixon.

Historically, such a scenario would have resulted in a Democratic landslide. Witness what happened to Herbert Hoover in 1932, to Gerald Ford in 1976, and to a lesser extent Clinton's victory over Bush I in 1992 (even with the added complication of Ross Perot running as an Independent). Yet, despite the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in, many Americans who have felt the brunt of the Bush years in their personal and professional lives firsthand, and who stand to suffer even more in the future if things continue as is, are either still on the fence or siding with the Republican ticket. Are these Americans just crazy, or is something else going on here?

The rational person, including a person outside the U.S. who cannot vote but will be affected by our choice here, would look at the past eight years, review John McCain's voting record in Congress and his hot temper under pressure , look at his choice of a running mate (e.g. I can see Russia from my backyard, so that means I am qualified in foreign policy matters), and easily conclude that things under a new Republican administration will at best be the same, and possibly worse. Even a mediocre candidate from the Democratic party should be a shoo-in this year, shouldn't they? And with a smart, resourceful, inspiring, and hopeful guy like Obama, who maybe comes along once in a generation, who has pulled millions of people of all creeds and colors back into believing in the ability to effect positive change and who actually makes sense when he talks (in grammatical sentences no less)-- it should be a total blowout. Why isn't it?

It's not for one simple reason: common sense and rationality are not on center stage here. Unfortunately, a fair percentage of Americans, perhaps even more than in years past, make important decisions based on single or a few criteria divorced from the issues at hand. This is true of people who typically vote solely based on a candidate's stand on abortion, or gay rights, or gun control--all visceral issues. But it goes beyond that, and I think it's more pervasive this year. Example: a woman who went from being undecided to supporting McCain/Palin was quoted in the Detroit News the other day, saying that her decision was based on her belief that Palin "is a hockey mom like me." If this sounds like a crazy reason to pick a candidate for the highest office in the land. especially such a complicated and screwed-up land, you might ask if this woman would hire a doctor, a lawyer, or other professional on the same basis? The answer is, sad to say--quite likely she would. Because this is America, so even if her choice worked out badly, she could sue for malpractice and probably walk away with a few hundred thousand dollars or even more. Sadly, too many Americans have grown used to blaming others for their own decisions, so there is little incentive to be rational and think through even important life choices. We are simply seeing the effects of this mentality magnified in the presidential election.

But we also have something else going on that, like an elephant, is a huge but mostly silent presence in this election. In the last thirty or forty years, ethnic prejudice has gone underground in America-- but most people would agree that it has far from disappeared.

In fairness, as a country, America is a vastly different place from even 30 years ago--when it was still legal, for example, to try to disqualify me from a government job by stating openly that a woman could not be successful in a management position in Japan (I got the job, and was successful). As a testament to the fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--not to mention Sarah Palin--got as far as they did, many people genuinely are more accepting of women, Jews, gays, and people who are non-Caucasian assuming leadership roles. But, for those who are still unable to trust anyone in a position of authority who is of another religion, sexual persuasian, or ethnicity--and this is no small number of my countrymen and women--the issue has merely gone below the surface, like the larger part of an iceberg. It is not politically correct to be "anti-diversity", so people remain silent, or even lie about where they stand--at least in public. When they talk to a pollster or even to a friend, they may or may not be honest--or they may encode their choice with the "values" pitch--so and so's "values" are like mine, so that's why I'm for them. . But when they go into a voting booth, with its complete privacy, they are far more likely to be true to their own beliefs.

That is why, despite all evidence that the country is on a dangerously wrong track and needs new leadership, Barack Obama's lineage is the silent elephant in this election. A few weeks ago, a union leader spoke frankly to his troops in a white, blue collar area near Detroit that in recent years has voted heavily Republican. "I know you don't like Obama because he's black, and you can't see yourself voting for a black man for president ," said the leader. "I have three words for you--get over it."

McCain's traditional Republican supporters aside, it remains to be seen if those who are undecided because of the Democratic contender's racial background, or those who have traditionally voted Democratic but are switching over because of it, "get over it" on or before Election Day. For love of country, I'm hoping--and praying- that if they can't, these people at least recognize themselves, and have the decency to sit out the election rather than cast a vote that would almost surely contribute to increasing the velocity of our present downward spiral--both at home and in the world.

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