Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet brave individuals fighting for democracy in many lands.
I talked to women in Kuwait who for years fought what seemed like an endless and futile struggle — but ultimately proved a successful quest — for the right to vote. I have encountered Burmese people in and out of that desperate country, yearning for release from a brutal military tyranny. I have met men and women in Tibet whose Chinese rulers might imprison them for as little as owning a picture of their preferred leader, the Dalai Lama.
At different times, I have interviewed Haitians, Saudis, Cubans, who have risked their freedom and even their lives for their democratic ideals. That’s why watching people in other countries vote always touches me. Maybe that’s the reason I have never taken my own right to vote lightly. In fact, I confess, I have always found the very act of walking into an election site and casting my vote a deeply moving experience.
That’s why I find the recent turn of electoral politics in the United States so disheartening.
Perhaps the hard economic times bear the blame for the strange, almost surreal turn the midterm election took in the United States. At a time of crisis, I had naively expected a mature democracy to produce serious candidates with bright, creative, responsible ideas.
Instead, the electoral circus offers a veritable menagerie of weirdness. Admittedly, the candidates include some highly amusing characters. It would be easy to sit back and enjoy the show. Except that the outrageous, idiotic and plainly strange ones have already made it so far in their races that they have diminished the level of the conversation. At a time when Americans should be hearing an intelligent discussion about the difficult decisions ahead, we are treated to what in many cases amounts to an insulting collection of candidates.
The New York Times’ Gail Collins has chronicled the developments hilariously, holding an unwinnable contest to decide “which state is having the most appalling campaign season.” Was it South Carolina, where the mysterious Democratic candidate for the Senate promises to create jobs by having the unemployed make action figures of his likeness? Is it the Aqua Buddha debate in Kentucky, the “I’m not a witch” candidate in Delaware? The list is depressingly long, and a number of readers complained that Collins had ignored their state’s outrageous race.
There’s a little of everything, from New York’s thuggish Republican candidate for governor, whose entire campaign consists of declaring he is really, really angry, to candidates claiming Muslim Sharia is already the law in parts of this country. In many races, None of the Above could probably win by a landslide.
This is probably not what committed pro-democracy activists in troubled parts of the world, trying to free themselves from dictators, have in mind for their country. If times were better in America, I would write off the election circus as a sign that the stakes are low, that optimistic Americans think the United States will be OK no matter who wins. I still think there is some of that at play. But the lack of seriousness is really troubling.
At moments like these, we should hear candidates discussing exactly what the U.S. leaders should do about the painfully high unemployment rate and the truly alarming budget deficit. A serious plan to cut the deficit — spending cuts and tax increases — will surely come in the future, but honest and constructive talk on the subject are in astoundingly short supply. By now, it is an accepted feature of America’s democracy that you don’t talk about such things if you want to win an election. But this is the time when voters pay attention. It’s the time to present them with the true choices.
Nobody discusses the options on Iran — would America rather live with a nuclear-armed Islamic republic or risk another war in the Middle East? The issue matters greatly, but discussion is largely absent.
We can only hope that voters will prove them wrong and start demanding serious, responsible candidates. If America wants to remain an inspiration to the world, voters must make sure this country has a democracy worth imitating.
— Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.