The unhappy consensus

October 18, 2012

Keeping in line with the ritual of every election over the last 40 years or so, this fall’s contest is the most important one yet. At odds, we’re told, are two fundamentally different visions of America.

The nation is either on the verge of completing its transition to a socialist economy under the leadership of a fiery anti-colonialist, or it’s on the brink of an unprecedented corporate coup d’état that will set back the great progress of the last four years—depending on which campaign narrative you prefer. There are indeed some meaningful differences between Obama and Romney, but what debate season ultimately reminds us of is the enormous amount of common ground these two candidates share.

Over the first two debates, Romney and Obama have battled it out over who’s more “serious” about cutting the deficit, each of them playing up their hawkishness on the budget, and criticizing the other for not being “serious” enough. The candidates have each paid tribute to the beauty of American business—acknowledging nevertheless that some minor regulations are needed. And, of course, who could forget Obama’s swooning paen to the beauty of “free enterprise” and “individual initiative” in his closing remarks on Tuesday night?

The debates have reminded us that Obama and Romney are both in favor of a government-subsidized, privately-run health care plan, the massive transcontinental Keystone XL pipeline, and keeping existing gun laws on the books. They also both want to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Employing a phrase that would’ve set liberals into a frenzy had it come from his opponent, the President tactlessly bragged about deporting “gangbangers.”

In fact, this kind of language isn’t all that surprising coming from an administration that has deported more immigrants than any other residency in U.S. history. A week earlier, in the extended discussion of foreign policy, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden expressed unending support for Israel, celebrated the “achievements” of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and beat the war drums on Iran. One can only imagine the genuinely chilling agreements Obama and Romney will come to in the foreign policy debate next week.

But in addition to the issues they’ve agreed to on in the debates, it’s worth recalling the issues that haven’t surfaced at all over the last few weeks—questions related to civil liberties, the War on Drugs, the future of public education and its mostly unionized workforce, or raising the federal minimum wage for the first time in more than three years.

For all of the liberal media’s talk about the Occupy movement shaping the election dialogue, there hasn’t been a single question posed about economic inequality. Presumably, Obama and Romney are in broad agreement on these matters as well. Through the two parties’ ownership of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Republicans and Democrats negotiate a pre-debate contract that often determines which questions can and cannot be raised.

To be fair, there are some meaningful differences between the candidates—most notably, on social policy. There are also key distinctions that lie less in the individual candidates’ personal views than in the voting blocs and class interests that their parties represent: Democrats are, for historical and political reasons, generally more accountable to minorities, women, the LGBT community, labor, and most of the working class. Republicans are more accountable to the Christian Right, disaffected swathes of the white working class, and small-business owners. These distinctions matter and still impact policy.

Nonetheless, the debates speak to the frightening consensus of both parties’ leadership on issues that extend from the economy and the workplace to the environment and foreign policy. As the power of corporate America grows, bouldering over the remnants of our welfare state and quelling resistance to the destruction of our planet, the American political consensus is likely to expand in the future, eliminating almost any hope of systemic societal change from inside the political system.

In a time when the country truly needs a new direction, both parties continue to lurch toward soggy centrist policies that hold little promise of stimulating the economy, stemming the tide of ecological destruction or keeping Americans safe from violence at home and from abroad. If there’s one thing the last two debates should show us, it’s that while there’s a lot of attention wasted on the differences between the two parties, the fact is the distance between them is functionally very small and only keeps getting smaller.

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