The Unspoken Taboos during the Presidential Debates
Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney opened the final phase of the American
presidential campaign before the actual election on November 6. The ostensible
topic was the economy. Both candidates gave surprise performances; Romney was
much better than expected, Obama was downright disappointing.
What was not surprising was that both
candidates were able to avoid confronting several realities of the current
situation facing the United States. What are the taboos? The major one is the
position of the United States in the world today. Before World War I, the U.S.
was not a global power. Indeed, the domestic isolationist strain was more than
prevalent, and it could be argued that the U.S. reluctantly entered both world
wars and reluctantly became a world power.
Following this line of reasoning,
the position of the United States at the end of World War II was a unique
situation. Virtually untouched by the war, the U.S. found itself as a dominant
power. Europe and much of the world had been devastated. The creation of the
United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions and other international
organizations under American leadership was a quirk of history, not something
The second major taboo has to do
with the basis of the economy. The United States has been a major industrial
power. The automobile industry, for example, was created on the basis of cheap
oil and steel. Are we living today in a post-industrial world? President Obama
bailed out the automobile makers, but there is no question that Japan and
Germany have surpassed the United States in inventive car manufacturing. If we
are living in a post-industrial world, what to do with industrial workers and
industries that are becoming obsolete? How to compete with cheaply paid foreign
workers in heavy industry?
The dynamic evolving nature of
global politics and economics should force leaders to deal with change. Since
the end of World War II, the United States has had a dominating
political/economic situation. It is quite normal in the grand scheme of things
that that situation will change. Whether we call it the end or decline of
empire or the rise of the rest, it is unreasonable and dangerous to believe
that the situation following WWII will continue.
Can a presidential candidate talk
realistically about change when the voters want to hear about continuing
domination? Probably not. Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for talking about a
certain malaise in the United States. Barack Obama has been accused of
admitting American decline. The candidates are stuck in giving the voters the
paradigm they want to believe in. Unfortunately, neither of them can talk about
change or managing change.
Change is a constant throughout
history. Managing change involves being open to new possibilities. By repeating
phrases from the past the candidates may ensure pleasing the voters, but they
risk being irrelevant to the current reality. Continuing to maintain taboos or
being mired in nostalgia for the past is what Barbara Tuchman called the march
of folly. Can we continue to hope for something better from our leaders?