The 2008 presidential election might be the perfect storm. There are hints (so far only hints) that the election might be the turning point for the nature of the public discourse in the United States. A large part of this election will likely be a referendum on the Iraq war, but that already happened to a lesser degree in the 2006 mid-terms, and it's an easy position for Democrats to hold right now: the country is overwhelmingly fed up with the war. Opposing the war takes little political courage right now, and indeed I hope that this easy stance will pay off for whoever the Democratic candidate is when people hear John McCain talk about his 100 year war in the Middle East.
There's another issue, however, which is related, but distinct, and
that's the climate of fear that Karl Rove and colleagues have
cultivated in America in order to advance their political agenda. The
opportunity for this perversion of the American political process came
in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This video
of a heartbroken Jon Stewart introducing his first show after the
attacks captures the amazing sentiment of unity at that moment. Toward
the end he is describing the aftermath and he says, "It's light, it's
democracy. We've already won. You can't shut that down." President Bush
and his minions took advantage of that national unity and combined it with fear-mongering to lead the country to war in Iraq.
Over the past six and a half years, now, they've continued to push their agenda on the American people by conjuring the bugbear of terrorism to continue the war, to excuse lamentable foreign policy around the world, and worst of all, to trample upon the very freedoms which the President is sworn to protect. There is actually a debate at the highest levels of our government about whether we should torture prisoners. How have we fallen from being a beacon of hope to the world to being lumped in with medieval dictators? The democratic principles which we cherish so much, and which differentiate us from those who seek to harm us have been sacrificed for foreign and domestic policies which make us less, not more, safe.
Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist and author. He often points out that we're presented a choice between security and privacy. But it isn't an either/or proposition: we can defend ourselves from terrorism without spying on American telephone conversations; we can keep our airports and borders safe without banning liquids or harassing visitors to the country. We need to escape this cycle of bad policy motivated by imaginary fears.
The Republican party has so ingrained the sense of fear in the American people that it is very difficult for anyone running for national office to proclaim that these dangers have been exaggerated. Saying that we can protect civil liberties and treat prisoners humanely, and give them fair trials makes a candidate seem "soft". After sweeping the "crabcake" primary, John McCain said:
They will paint a picture of the world in which America's mistakes are
a greater threat to our security than the malevolent intentions of an
enemy that despises us and our ideals...In a time of war, and the terrible sacrifices it entails, the promise of a better future is not always clear.
He, as President Bush did before him, appeals not to the better angels of our nature, but to a fear that we are being assailed from all sides. Another President, in a much darker time, said:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning,
unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat
into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of
frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the
people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that
you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
And maybe, just maybe, there is hope for that same leadership of frankness and vigor. One candidate dared to say:
It’s a game where the only way for Democrats to look tough on
national security is by talking, and acting and voting like Bush-McCain
Republicans, while our troops are sent to fight tour after tour of duty
in a war that should’ve never been authorized and should’ve never been
waged. That’s what happens when we use 9/11 to scare up votes, and
that’s why we need to do more than end a war – we need to end the
mindset that got us into war.
It's a small step, but an important one towards a President(ial candidate, for now) who is not afraid to tell us that the threat is not as great as some would have us believe, and that we can return to setting the example for how an open, peaceful democracy acts.