The upcoming general elections in the United States may be the most momentous in several decades. In many ways, the choice between (presumably) Barack Obama and John McCain will be a referendum on the nation’s future at a fundamental level. Free Inquiry does not endorse candidates—indeed, as the journal of a nonprofit organization it cannot legally do so—but we want to highlight specific issues whose political and ethical import each voter should consider before casting his or her ballot.
WAR AND PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
As we write, Iraq seems to be drifting toward at least a superficial sense of order. Supporters of the war effort claim this as evidence that the yearlong “surge” has worked; then again, insurgent forces may be craftily biding their time, waiting for America to get distracted. That “distraction” may come from Afghanistan. While the American military focused most of its attention on Iraq, Al Qaeda and related forces have regrouped, reorganized, and gathered strength. Heightened U.S. military action in Afghanistan is likely in the near term. Finally, signs are gathering that Israel may launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, with an unknown degree of clandestine (or even open) U.S. support.
In past editorials, we said that the Iraq War was unjustified and immoral, a controversial position at the time but now in line with a growing national consensus. Some questioned the justification of the Afghan war; while there was at least a direct link between Al Qaeda forces based in Afghanistan and the attacks of September 11, 2001, we found it disproportionate to resort to war rather than high-level police action. We further questioned the propriety of waging war, by definition a state of hostility among sovereign states, against nonstate actors. Surely it is unacceptable to make decisions of war and peace based solely on considerations of military expedience, nationalistic hubris, or the need to guarantee the oil and liquid natural gas supplies of the United States and Britain. Ethical and humane considerations should carry substantial weight. We have supported the withdrawal of American forces, and we now see that Prime Minster Maliki and the Iraqi government have called for the same. We still strongly support the reduction of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and its redeployment elsewhere.
ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
This election comes at a time when American opinion finally recognizes the daunting scope and severity of the challenges we face. America has an unsustainably large and still-growing population, consuming nonrenewable resources at an unsustainably high per-capita rate, spewing greenhouse gases and other pollutants at a rate that neither humanity, life in general, nor the climate can long sustain. The need is critical to develop alternative, renewable, nonpolluting sources of energy. Many will need to revamp their lifestyles so as to lead more efficient lives. We are heartened by Al Gore’s July speech proposing a ten-year, Apollo-project style American campaign to end the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and an all-out effort to develop alternative sources of energy such as wind power, solar energy, recyclable energy systems, and even nuclear power plants. But we are not convinced that any lone nation, even the United States, can optimally address this colossal challenge in isolation. We believe that the need is urgent for new international agreements that go far beyond the soon-expiring Kyoto protocols, agreements that subject every high-polluting nation (the United States, Russia, China, India, and the countries of Europe in particular) to strict guidelines backed up by credible means of enforcement.
We stand at or near the end of a long global experiment in economic laissez-faire. Free markets have dramatically accelerated economic growth rates in emerging nations—especially in China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Brazil. But does this mean that there should be no regulation? Witness the credit crunch and banking crisis in the United States. While there have been favorable results, notably the rapid diffusion of newer-generation technologies in the developing world, the human costs have been sobering. Across not only the United States but the world, a super-wealthy majority has grown even wealthier. The poor in many countries have gained little ground, and in some countries they are significantly worse off than they were in decades past. Most disturbingly, the broad middle class—ranging from better-paid manufacturing workers to professionals who in saner times might themselves have been considered wealthy—has eroded. Since the 1700s in the West and more recently across the world, a growing middle class has been a bellwether for the expansion of democratic rights. Does a retreat of the middle class presage their reversal?
We deplore the hosannas sung in praise of the emergence of billionaires worldwide, not only in the United States and Europe, but in India, China, Russia, and Latin America. Of special concern is the inordinate political power that such wealthy oligarchs have in their home countries. If the unequal distribution process continues, the accelerated transformation of democracies into plutocracies seems likely.
Especially disturbing are recent figures that show the great disparities in wealth and the uneven income distributions that have emerged in the United States, especially since 2000. In 2000, the average family income of the bottom 90 percent of the total U.S. population (excluding capital gains but adjusted for inflation) was $31,437. In 2006, it was only $30,173, a decline of 4 percent, whereas for the top .01 percent it had increased 22 percent, from $14,128,673 in 2000 to approximately $16,954,408 in 2006. Again, these figures exclude capital gains, most of which accrue to wealthier individuals. Had capital gains been included, the disparities between rich and poor might be even greater. In any case, income of the topmost echelon grew at a far faster pace than that of any other sector of the population.
OUR FUTURE AT STAKE
Across the political, economic, and religious spectrums, Americans of all shades of opinion sense that our society is on the brink of a major change of direction. Old ideologies are played out; their failure to address such looming crises as climate change, fossil fuel depletion, crumbling infrastructure, and a changing global order is palpable. Are we poised, after decades of domestic timidity, to re-embrace giant public projects to tackle climate change and energy use? Are we prepared to repeal preferential tax policies that favor the wealthy and enact a sensible health-care system that covers everyone? The pending election will do much more than elect a president and other officials. It has the potential to be a fundamental shift in the direction of a more humane—and dare we say, humanistic—world.
We are the electorate. It’s up to us.