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On November 6th, for the 57th time in the nation’s history, Americans will head to the polls to vote for President of the United States. The media has deemed this a political crossroads and the most important election in a generation. This storyline may be good for advertising revenue; but it is far from the truth. Though the candidates differ on several hot button socio-cultural issues (many beyond the purview of executive powers), it is their similarity that is most striking. Abandoning his reputation as a moderate pragmatist, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has had to swerve far to the right to appease a largely rural and anti-government Republican base that he is one of their own. Incumbent Barack Obama seeks re-election despite a sluggish economic recovery and questions about his handling of Libya and unemployment.
Once hailed as the harbinger of a new, post-partisan Washington, Obama has presided over four years of failed compromises and congressional obstruction, resulting in a mixed legacy that is no certainty for extension. The superficial differences between the two men appear to buttress the media narrative. Indeed, they manifest in aspects of fiscal policy — scope of taxation, financial deregulation, and funding of public entitlement programs — but the disparity is not nearly as wide as it seems.
As evidenced by Obama’s piecemeal implementation of his own agenda, a Romney victory may not mean a complete reversal of the past four years, especially if Democrats retain control of the Senate. The probability of government intervention or further stimulus in the case of a stalled recovery is low regardless of the outcome; debate on both sides is centered not on ways to expand the role of government, but on what level to reduce it. Similarly, the social boundaries that Obama has pushed — supporting the rights of LGBT citizens to marry and serve in the military — enjoy popular public consensus, and could conceivably advance under a less sympathetic administration. Despite the support of the most powerful office in the land, nationwide legalization of gay marriage has no hope of passing, leaving it to the individual states to decide. As would be the case under a hostile Romney administration.
A Romney victory may not mean a complete reversal of the past four years.
Obama’s signature legislative achievement, healthcare reform, was modeled directly after Mitt Romney’s own program, which mandated Massachusetts citizens purchase private insurance or face penalties.Romney’s current plan is simply to repeal ‘Obamacare’—or rather, the unpopular parts—but this would require the votes of 60/100 senators, meaning large-scale repeal is unlikely Likewise, there is little difference on entitlements. Despite its popularity, Romney has campaigned on a reform of social security (Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance), America’s largest entitlement program. While this would seem an ideologically and politically expedient issue on which to campaign, Obama cited Romney’s planned reduction of benefits as an area where the two agree, stating during the first debate: “I suspect that on social security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position.” And while Romney proposes to award the Pentagon more money than even it requested of the government, it is Obama who has increased military spending to its largest level in history.
Perhaps as a result, the discourse is dominated by trivialities (Paul Ryan lied about his marathon time? Obama attended a fundraiser hosted by Jay-Z and Beyoncé?), and many substantive issues are hardly debated. This is not because the candidates are steering clear of politically dangerous territory, but because in practice, there is no disagreement. Romney’s attempts to draw a contrast between his and Obama’s foreign policy are largely semantic. Increased sanctions on Iran, ‘closer’ relations with Israel, skepticism of the Arab Spring, enthusiastic approval of authoritarian powers granted in the name of the War on Terror — all of Romney’s proposals could have been quoted from a Democratic strategist praising Obama’s ‘achievements’. The final presidential debate on foreign policy consisted mainly of Romney agreeing with the President in various forms.
The co-opting of the Tea Party make it clear that presently, there will be no alternatives...
Unlike foreign policy, there is not even a suggestion of divergence on the domestic War on Terror. Though one may assume that anti-government Republicans would cringe at the idea of an Orwellian web of federal agencies listening to phone calls, reading emails, and monitoring message board posts, the reality is the exact opposite (perhaps as long as it is restricted to foreigners and Muslims). Congress is quick to codify the radical powers seized by the current Administration—warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism without trial, even targeted assassination of citizens. The Patriot Act, the basis of many of these policies, is routinely renewed with little dissent.
With a lack of viable third parties (the Green Party was arrested trying to enter the second debate in New York), bipartisan consensus means a removal of issues from public debate and the sharpening of minor disagreements into full-scale culture war. The emergence of large movements expressing dissatisfaction from both ends of the ideological spectrum was encouraging; but the speed of their marginalization was astounding. The co-opting of the Tea Party by the Republican establishment and the suppression of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left make it clear that presently, there will be no alternatives. A Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited, unreported monetary campaign donations from citizens and corporations alike cements this as the status quo for the foreseeable future.
So as Americans line up at the polls for the 57th time, the election no longer seems like a crossroads, but simply another stop along the same path.