What happened to serious policy debate in the “greatest democracy in the world”?

September 29, 2020

We’re just hours away from the first presidential debate between incumbent Trump and challenger Biden, and more than anything I’m struck by the paucity of attention to substantive policies that might address the mash-up of grave crises facing the nation at this extraordinarily fraught moment.

I’m teaching several social welfare policy courses this term. Usually a presidential election year is an especially exciting and fertile time for such courses; competing approaches to serious issues offered by the major parties can be compared and contrasted from a social work/social welfare perspective. Sadly, not so this year. Biden’s campaign seems organized around a single message – Trump is a horrible incompetent; Trump will destroy our democracy; the USA won’t survive another four years of Trump. Trump’s message is structurally similar, if more incendiary – Biden is a has-been, corrupt tool of old Washington; Biden’s a puppet of the radical left wing of the Democratic Party; Biden will give the country over to anarchists-socialists-Antifa terrorists bent on destroying America.

Character assassination – however accurate the charges – is not policy proposal. Virtually nothing worthwhile is offered by either candidate or party to inspire confidence that the next administration will be up to the task of solving our most urgent issues. Nothing to fix a badly broken health care system. Nothing to reverse our obscene economic inequality and the encroaching impoverishment of most working Americans. Nothing to reclaim the badly deteriorated legitimacy of a political system that seems responsive only to the demands of the powerful. Nothing to address systemic racism and the persistently violent excesses of police charged with maintaining a civil order shot through with injustice. Nothing to acknowledge even, let alone meaningfully mitigate, the climate crisis already wreaking havoc and promising to get very bad very fast. Nothing to redirect the resources of the warfare state toward building the world that we want and desperately need.

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