Cutting through the campaign rhetoric and attack ads, here are five issues that should be at the center of the 2012 election, plus one that has no place in the public sphere.
Every election year, the two parties choose the agendas and issues to highlight and ballyhoo. Often it feels as though we citizens have little power to turn the conversation to the issues we want addressed.
But that's not as true as it seems. Conversations around the water cooler or over the picket fence reverberate through society, amplified by social media that can make all of us into little newscasters. Campaigns like the petition drive launched by the League of Conservation Voters to demand that Jim Lehrer bring up climate change during the presidential debates show additional ways that citizens can set the agenda.
With that said, here are five issues that should be at the center of this election, and one that should be off the table.
1. Rebuild the economy, starting with the middle class and poor, not Wall Street and CEOs.
Although the Great Recession is officially over, the middle class and poor are still struggling. One in four working families is spending more than half its income just to keep a roof over their heads. There are more than half a million Americans who are homeless on any given night, and one in three families headed by a single mother is going hungry at least part of the year.
To get the economy moving again, we need to start by putting more earning and spending power in the hands of the poor and middle class, starting with a higher minimum wage and progressive tax policies. Only then can businesses invest, knowing they will have customers.
We need small and medium-sized businesses that are rooted in their communities, not giant transnational corporations. Government should help veterans, recent graduates, and the unemployed to launch their own businesses and cooperatives, and back employees who take over companies that are threatening to close their doors.
Newly proposed zones of so-called "free trade," like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, should be stopped before more jobs are shipped overseas and wages and environmental protections are eroded even further, all of which benefits transnational corporations, not sustainable, rooted economies.
We need to break up the big banks, which nearly brought down our economy, and instead support the local banks and credit unions that invest in the businesses and homes of our communities.
2. Support practices that improve health; end those that harm us.
We can make a good start on addressing the root causes of the chronic ailments that afflict us by making sure everyone has access to healthy fruits and vegetables, safe outdoor spaces for exercise, and an environment free of toxins. Together, these steps would make a big dent in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and cancer.
Eliminating taxpayer subsidies to dirty energy corporations and producers of unhealthy additives like high-fructose corn syrup would be good steps in the right direction. Instead, taxpayer subsidies should support development of clean renewables and access in schools and neighborhoods to fresh, local food.
Access to health care is important, too. We should protect Medicare, which our elderly rely on, not turn it into a voucher program. And we should make sure that there are nonprofit, public, and cooperative insurance options as part of the health insurance exchanges that will be set up as part of the Affordable Care Act. Even better would be to extend Medicare for all.
3. Rein in deficit spending, starting with the U.S. military.
The bill for two massive wars, Bush-era tax cuts, and the economic bailouts of the big banks is coming due. How will we pay for it while our economy is still struggling?
Many empires have fallen after overextending their military forces and spending down their resources. The United States, too, runs that risk. By reinventing our military to defend the United States, rather than to project force abroad, and by putting veterans to work doing jobs that are needed here at home, we could rebuild our country and our economy, and rein in spending.
Here's a place to start. A report by the Institute for Policy Studies shows we could save $252 billion a year without risking our national security by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, cutting back on the hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world, and eliminating wasteful and obsolete programs.
While politicians have traditionally been loath to cut military spending because they are concerned about losing military jobs, it's important to remember that every dollar spent on the military results in fewer jobs than one spent elsewhere. When combined with educational programs to retrain military personnel for work in other sectors, channeling military money into other parts of the economy means more, not fewer, jobs.
4. Get real about the climate crisis.
A single week during the summer of 2012 saw more than 2,000 temperature records broken in the United States. Two million acres of U.S. land burned in July alone, while 63 percent of the country suffered from a crop-destroying drought. Further north, large portions of Greenland's ice cover turned to slush, while Arctic ice cover hit a record low.
Yet neither of the two presidential candidates is making solutions to the climate crisis a centerpiece of his campaign, nor offering ways for hard-hit communities to cope.
That's not to say that the two parties are in lockstep on this issue. The Republican platform doesn't mention the climate crisis, except to ridicule Obama administration policies aimed at addressing it. The Democratic platform refers to climate change as among the greatest threats we face, and President Obama drew enthusiastic applause when he spoke of the climate crisis during his convention acceptance speech. But the president has backed off of the leadership he promised in his 2008 campaign.
The climate crisis ranks among the most serious emergencies ever faced by humanity, and taking immediate steps should be a top priority. Here are five policies that would make a real difference. The good news is that taking on the climate challenge would also clean our air and water, provide thousands of new jobs, and make us healthier.
5. Stand up to corporate power.
There's no natural law that says we must allow big corporations and Wall Street banks to run roughshod over our economy and government. We the people created publicly traded corporations, and we issue the charters. We also have the right to reinvent companies to better serve employees, communities, and customers. And we have the right to revoke charters of companies that are chronic lawbreakers.
The overwhelming influence of money in politics was a problem before the activists on the Supreme Court chose to overturn laws that limit spending on elections. But since the Citizens United decision, the floodgates are open to massive, secret spending. Those with the money get the policies and the government they want; the poor and middle class get locked out.
Many citizens, along with state and local governments, are now calling for a constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not "persons" and that money is not protected by the First Amendment.
We'll need to take other steps to rein in the power of corporations and Wall Street and return authority for the future of our country to we the people. We can't rely on candidates for public office who are dependent on big money interests--it will take popular movements, like the Occupy movement that swept the nation last year, to get them to do the right thing.
The stakes have never been higher. To get action on climate change, to restore the economy, to get a fairer tax structure, to reduce the massive scale of the military-industrial complex, and to move ahead on any number of fronts, we'll need to put the interests of people first. And that means we need to take on the power of giant transnational corporations.
The political leaders of any party who have the courage to take a stand on this deserve our support.
What should not be part of this election?
Many more items are essential parts of public discourse, from education to immigration, but there's one thing the election should not be about:
This election should not be about Governor Romney's Mormon faith nor about President Obama's Christianity. Nor should it be about whether the term "God-given" should have been removed from the Democratic Party platform. A quick look at the raging conflicts in the Middle East shows how well religious sectarian conflicts work out. Our own early history was rife with religious persecution. The framers of the Constitution wisely prohibited government from establishing a state religion or using religion as a test for public office. We'd be wise to follow that spirit, and keep government -- and politics -- separated from religion.
What's your agenda? And how are you bringing it out this election? Next blog post, I'll share some thoughts about how to get your voice heard above the din.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Sarah is co-founder and executive editor of YES!
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