Every Man a President
by Erik Curren, publisher Transition Voice
At Transition Voice, we face the ongoing challenge of balancing stories on local resilience – reviews of books on pickling or gardening, for example – with stories that connect Transition to the bigger picture of politics, culture and society.
And from my perch near Washington, DC, it's hard to ignore the biggest story in the American media today, the presidential election campaign.
Bigger guns, longer battles
As a Transitioner busy in my own small city on local projects – helping my wife start our Transition group's community garden, working with a solar energy developer and even running for local public office myself – it would be easy to ignore the embarrassing mud-wrestling match that the national campaign has become in the era of partisan rancor and unlimited corporate cash.
Our republic is divided between Democrats and Republicans, who can't seem to agree on anything these days except that things are seriously broken. But as Occupy Wall Street highlighted last year, our allegedly classless meritocracy has also pitted the wealthiest 1% against the rest of us. Throw in traditional American divisions of race, gender and geographic region, and it's a wonder that each voter doesn't just plan to write in her own name for president on the ballot this November.
One of the most frustrating parts of the presidential race is that a process which used to take only a couple months now has expanded to cover a full two years. Curiously, it took only six or eight weeks of national campaigning for American voters to decide on Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy. But now the electorate apparently requires twenty months to evaluate the relative merits of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Then, voters will still need two more months to comparison shop one of those giants of statesmanship against Barack Obama in the general election.
So, yes, by now, this long circus-sideshow has grown tiresome. But even more frustrating than its length is its fixation on Stuff That Doesn't Matter.
Bring out the vote and put me to sleep
For a Transitioner or anyone who cares about the environment and energy, the Republican candidates' relentless focus on social issues from abortion to gay marriage to religion feels like a distraction that's simultaneously dishwater dull and deadly dangerous.
So, while ice caps melt and oil wars loom, the U.S. national media is aflame with talk about mandatory ultrasounds for women considering an abortion, whether health insurance should pay for birth-control pills and when fetuses qualify as people (or, as liberal wags have put it, whether human life begins at conception or, instead, when the bartender announces "last call").
Of course, because Republican campaign strategists believe that making candidates talk about contentious social issues brings out their party's committed base of ultra-conservative voters, you shouldn't expect anything different in their primary race. So the optimist in me can still hope that when the Republican candidate is chosen and has to face off against President Obama, the focus will return to what both parties claim is the biggest issue of all – jobs and the economy.
Yet, the realist in me knows full well that any campaign talk of the economy will barely scratch the surface. Controversy will go little deeper than how much ordinary citizens will have to suffer to bring down the national debt, which rich people should get subsidies in order to "create jobs" and whether to bomb Iran in time for Christmas or wait a little bit longer.
Only if Occupy Wall Street makes good on its promise to "occupy" the presidential campaign and each party's national convention in August, might the public hear some good sense on the economy. And only then will the media return to the issues of financial equity and money in politics pushed aside by the Republican primary race.
This will be a good start. But again, the discussion probably won't go too deep. It certainly won't get to the root causes of our financial malaise: the end of economic growth and corporate globalization mandated by peak oil and peak everything.
Fossil fools and drilling demons
Meantime, only because gasoline prices have been rising, will energy be an issue. But I hold out little hope that this most important of subjects will be handled in anything but the most pandering and demagogic way: Which candidate can bring gas prices down more quickly so American drivers can continue to enjoy some of the lowest fuel prices among industrial nations, no matter if that's even possible for much longer? Who will support more drilling for oil in North America? And of course, who will bomb Iran harder, when the time comes to chasten that upstart nation's nuclear ambitions once and for all (and then grab the oil)?
All this is to say that, while informed Americans, including all the Transitioners I know, want their presidential candidates to talk about the things that really matter to the country, we're not holding our breath that it will happen anytime soon.
But rather than getting cynical, many of us are instead taking matters into our own hands. It's a very encouraging development of the last few years that Transition has become only one of several movements sweeping the United States to help people gain more control over their daily lives, primarily by "going local."
I give credit to the bad economy, which has put many people out of work and made it hard for families to keep their homes while at the same time paying all their bills for food, energy and transportation. So as many of us start to economize, we discover the pleasures of doing more things ourselves while getting to know the neighbors.
Maybe it's not what most of us want. It's certainly not what most of us had planned. But planting gardens, fixing our own porches and riding bicycles to work is helping more and more of us get back the self-respect, confidence and creativity that we had lost over decades of getting paid well to sit in front of screens in cubicles stacked on top of each other inside glass office towers.
From the White House to my house
Back in the news media, no matter who the Republicans decide to run, the smart money seems to be on President Obama in November. For me, that's certainly the lesser of two evils. And it's also a chance to put national politics in perspective.
Yes, it does matter who occupies the White House. But even if, in some alternate dimension where Al Gore or Ralph Nader became president, ordinary Americans in cities and towns across the States would still bear the awesome responsibility of building resilience in their families and in their communities. Fortunately, more and more of us are realizing that we are each the president of our own lives.
It also reminds me that, now more than ever, we Americans need help from Transitioners and other friends from around Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as from across Europe and beyond.
We need the examples of resilient living that you've developed from decades of having to use oil and other resources less wastefully than we have. We need your encouragement to go beyond our native parochialism and to start thinking even more globally even as we plan to act more locally. And we will continue to need your constructive criticism, particularly to remind us that our ruling elites on Wall Street or in Washington don't represent our people.