Friday, April 17, 2015

Facing society and history, we should expect more from our presidential candidates

Things are picking up in New Hampshire and Iowa, various contenders are grabbing headlines, and it seems like with each passing day attention is shifting more and more from the Obama administration to discussion of presidential candidates and 2016. To some extent this is can be positive - anything that citizens engaged and thinking about the process of democracy is a good thing in my book - but I think there is a downside as well to this early embrace of the next presidential contest. It also has the potential to encourage a "kick the can down the road" mentality at a time when there's no shortage of domestic challenges and foreign threats which need to be addressed.

This hyper-focus on the passage from one administration to the next is perhaps the most visible (and odious) result of living in a society where the 24 hour news cycle reigns supreme, with the rise of social media acting as a catalyst. The expectation of instant (and constant) information is only part of the issue, though - a more troubling aspect of this mentality is that it reflects a lack of willingness or ability to engage with substantive issues over a sufficient period of time to adequately address significant challenges to America's vital interests, from an increasingly aggressive China and Russia to political fragmentation in the Middle East.

While the current political and media atmosphere does little to encourage a holistic, long-term approach to key issues which span multiple presidential administrations or congresses, I do think that if someone could successfully apply this mindset to problems like climate change, failing critical infrastructure or any of several international disasters currently unfolding, that change could happen. Such a significant shift in approach to problem-solving would need a major figure at the forefront of the effort, though, which is why I would personally like to see the 2016 candidates for president embrace the idea that if they win they'll see themselves as playing an important collaborative role in making change, as opposed to an independent agent acting on the stage of history.

Of course the pursuit of the presidency lends itself neither to humility nor political generosity - in fact, we tend to celebrate the opposite in our potential presidents, especially during the primary process when contenders are pushed and pulled in the direction of extremes. Such polarization on the campaign trail creates an even more partisan mood in the country, making discourse around controversial topics all the more difficult and truncated. This is a problem, because angry, short conversations, are not the way to solve generational, long-term challenges. If anything, this mode of engagement tends to make things worse.

I know there are people out there who are calling for candidates to make iron-clad statements on specific issues, but in 2016 I for one would like to see a change in how aspirants for the highest office in the land think about their own role in society. Perhaps if we, the voters, send the signal that what we are are really looking for are facilitators with vision,  rather than lone heroes or heroines riding in to save the day, progress can be made. It's a tall order, I realize, but I think given the  challenges that we currently face, this change will have to happen one day to ensure that this great experiment in liberal democracy continues for generations to come.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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