08/13/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2012

Election 2012: What We Can't Talk About

You know a relationship is in trouble when the serious issues that confront it are the very ones people can't, or won't, talk about. You know your kids are in danger when the things that trouble them the most are the ones they can't, or won't, tell you about. Welcome to the American electorate in 2012.

Amidst all the challenges facing this nation, we can't talk about some of the biggest.

For example, we can't talk about climate change, even though the science is overwhelming that the planet is warming and that carbon dioxide from human activity is a significant reason. Conservatives charge that the data are fabricated or inconclusive and liberals are afraid to bring the issue up lest they sound like they are against business growth or for creating a new (carbon) tax.

We can't talk about tax increases, even though everyone who seriously looks at the budget issues facing the nation, including the now-defunct Simpson-Bowles Commission, knows that not all the deficit and debt can be addressed through spending cuts alone. Conservatives have staked their political lives on opposing any tax increases (most have signed a pledge to this effect) and liberals are afraid of suggesting a tax increase for fear of being branded as "tax and spend."

We can't talk about meaningful gun laws, despite the fact that gun incidents are the third leading cause of injury death (just behind motor vehicle accidents and poisoning) and that the Constitutional right to own a gun is no longer an issue. Liberals are afraid of being opposed at the polls by the NRA and conservatives equate meaningful gun laws with attacks on Constitutional rights.

We can't talk about campaign finance reform, even though the prevalence of Super PAC money in campaigns now means that groups with secret donors now spend more on campaigns than the political parties or candidates themselves. Yet everyone knows that people who give millions expect something in return and that this something is likely to be in their own self-interest. Conservatives insist that unfettered spending is a free speech right and liberals are right there with them because, who knows, in the next election they might get the upper hand in raising such cash.

We can't talk about Social Security or Medicare, even though these programs are on an unsustainable fiscal course that is wreaking havoc on the federal budget. These costs threaten the future of the programs, the elderly, and even the young who, increasingly, can't afford to save for their own retirement and so will need these programs even more. Liberals will not brook any change in these "rights" and conservatives are afraid of getting painted as against the elderly. Despite the recent selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate, the likelihood is that the coming campaign will focus more on scare tactics (by liberals) and carefully worded defenses (by conservatives) than it will an honest look at the costs and alternatives for the financial solvency of Social Security and Medicare over the long-term.

The failure to talk about such major problems has many roots. Some people, who desire to remain politically relevant or win elections, rationalize that they will talk about these things after they gain power (not acknowledging that the incentive structure for ignoring these issues will be the same then as it is now). Some just assume there has to be a more vivid and immediate crisis to be able to discuss these issues. Some, of a more optimistic bent, assume there will never be a crisis or that the problems will take care of themselves. Many would rather deal with more immediate issues, like increasing jobs or saving money, despite the fact that failing to address these deeper problems may potentially result in great job losses and huge expenses in the future. Some just hate conflict and talking about touchy issues is stressful.

These reasons have parallels in our personal lives as well. What do couples or families do when they can't talk about what they should discuss? They have arguments about side issues. Who didn't do take out the trash, who spent too much, who stayed out too late, who forgot an important date -- become surrogates for the conversations that matter. Similarly, in this election year, we talk about gay marriage, the president's place of birth, contraception, Romney's time at Bain Capital and his tax returns. Like all side issues, they seem important, but years later we recognize that they just kept us from the dialogue we needed to have. And, just like in personal relationships, we will look back and regret that we allowed ourselves to be so easily sidetracked when being more honest with each other could have saved us much heartache.

As with personal relationships, so with political ones. Someone has to have the courage to tell the truth, the resilience to take hearing others' truths, the compassion to reach out to those they now see as opponents, and the self-confidence to compromise for the good of the relationship -- or the society. Courage seems in short supply these days. It's what we need to look for more closely when we select those to lead us.