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The flaw in America’s election

Sunday, 11 November 2012 - 9:30am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

No doubt many people around the world, if not most, breathed a sigh of relief over the re-election of US President Barack Obama.

No doubt many people around the world, if not most, breathed a sigh of relief over the re-election of US President Barack Obama. A BBC World service poll of 21 countries found a strong preference for Obama everywhere except Pakistan. Joy over the election’s outcome, however, should not blind us to its failure to meet a series of ethical benchmarks for democratic choice.
According to the US-based Centre for Responsive Politics, spending on the election is estimated to have exceeded $6 billion. That makes the 2012 US election the most expensive ever held.

The bulk of this spending is just the two opposing parties cancelling each other out. This benefits advertising agencies and the media, but no one else, and surely not the parties themselves, or the viewers who are bombarded with ads, especially if they happen to live in hotly contested swing states. It is difficult to believe that, say, $200 million would not have been enough to inform the electorate adequately of the candidates’ policies.

In this scenario, spending limits would have saved about $5.8 billion. And, if such limits were combined with public financing of election campaigns, they would also help the election to meet an important ethical standard by denying the rich a disproportionate influence on outcomes, and on the subsequent actions of the president and Congress.

For the presidential election, the practice of holding three televised debates between the two major parties’ candidates should be an opportunity for a thorough airing of issues. Unfortunately, the most recent debates failed to achieve that goal.

Consider, for example, the final debate in October, which was supposed to focus on foreign policy. The US may no longer be the world’s undisputed leader, as it was in the decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse, but it nonetheless has a vital role to play in international affairs. Obama referred to the US as “the indispensable nation,” and that description still holds true, in part because US military spending exceeds that of the next nine countries combined.

There was, however, no serious discussion of the conditions under which it would be right to use that military might. Both candidates indicated that they did not favour military intervention to prevent the Syrian government from killing more of its citizens; but, neither was prepared to say when they would be prepared to accept the responsibility to protect citizens who come under attack from their own government, or from forces that their government is unwilling to restrain.

Indeed, what was not discussed in the candidates’ debate on foreign policy was more significant than what was. All of the discussion focused on the region that stretches from Libya to Iran. China was mentioned only in terms of its “cheating” on trade and currency matters.

The gravest omission was climate change. The closest Obama got to it during a debate was to talk about “energy independence”. That, obviously, is something that every patriotic American wants.

Obama also mentioned that he had raised fuel-economy standards for cars in the US, and had invested in renewable energy sources, like solar and wind power. But, when Romney talked about increasing coal production, Obama neglected to point out that carbon dioxide from coal-fired electricity generation is already a major contributor to climate change.

It took the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to get the president to mention climate change. After that, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was endorsing Obama, because his policies were better on climate change. In response, Obama acknowledged that climate change is “a threat to our children’s future, and we owe it to them to do something about it.” Now that he has been re-elected, the question is whether he will pay that debt to our children and to the generations that follow them.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012

Peter Singeris professor of bioethics at Princeton University

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