I wrote the following essay to vent frustration about a coming election—but the election in question was Obama vs. McCain, back in 2007. Every newspaper editor rejected the essay, or simply neglected to respond, so the piece languished in my outbox for five years. Today, as I re-read the sentiments, I barely had to change a word, as the piece expresses my current political outlook more strongly than ever.
As more candidates jump on the electoral bandwagon, I’d like to offer some dissident advice—because if the 2004 elections were any indication, American politicians have completely lost touch with the future.
Yes, the future: Think of America, 100 years from now, or even 50. Hell, what about ten? What is the role of America in 2017? What kind of ecosystems do we hope to preserve? Who will benefit from the future economy? What is a day in that future life—how do we commute to work, what is our job, what do we hope to read in the newspaper?
This may sound elementary, but consider how many speeches and press meetings discuss anything beyond 12 months, or at most a single presidential term. The Bush-Kerry debates of 2004 were painfully shortsighted: Bush, whining about the difficulty of his job, and Kerry, insisting that he would hunt down and kill terrorists. No “Great Society.” No “I have a dream.” No “fifteen minutes of fame” or even “a thousand points of light.” Kerry managed to express that “hope is on the way,” for the exhausted U.S. legions in Iraq. President Bush's grander schemes are only recycled catch-concepts, such as “No Child Left Behind” and “War on Terror.” The very phrases sound anachronistic—“child” and “war,” temporary states that eventually end. Then what?
Oh, many of these people have visions. They could design and describe America in 50 years, the America they’d like to see.
For some, this portrait of the future looks a lot like a Rockwell painting, full of corner stores and aproned mothers and glass bottles of Coca-Cola. The future holds strictly Christian prayers before dinner and chaste courtship and lifelong heterosexual marriage.
For others, it’s an oil-free, granola-chewing, Birkenstocks-sporting utopia, with ethnically complex family trees and trilingual children. Everybody has healthcare, adults work reasonable part-time jobs and volunteer on the side, and people take bullet-trains to the beach. Any petroleum we still need comes from the Western Hemisphere; in the future, Americans shake their heads at the news, watching Russian soldiers invade yet another Middle Eastern country. Thank God we got out of that mess!
Well, that’s the world I envision.
But politicians are very quiet about their world-views. Sure, many would like to ban abortion or run cars on vegetable oil, but these are not grand blueprints, only short-term projects. How should America behave in the future? Should we continue our role as world police? If not, how do we retire? If we continue, do we really expect to mold every dictatorship into our idea of democracy? All of them, or just our favorites? I just need to get the big picture here.
If U.S. politicians—and candidates—seem a little skittish about the future America, I feel that the reason is obvious: They simply don’t have faith in the future. It’s easy to debate the future of Iraq—either we’ll leave or we won’t. And even the potential invasion of Iran is easy punditry; we now have two invasions from which to learn our capabilities. But will that be our never-ending policy in the Middle East, until the oil fields are empty, or our military is depleted, or all the terrorist-housing cities are razed? Is that the America we want to be? Walking away from a smoldering subcontinent, just as the Romans left Carthage? I don’t think anybody has publically thought this far ahead.
Or all this debate about Global Warming: Even if it isn’t true, even if it is just a theory, who supports smog? Who wants to level the rainforests? Even Roosevelt envisioned national parks. We’re still wishy-washy about recycling paper, never mind rooftop gardens and compost piles.
Human advancement starts will a long-term goal. H.G. Wells imagined skyscrapers with air-conditioning, and a few decades later, they were invented and built. Isaac Asimov yearned for robots, and now we have robot festivals at MIT. The Founding Fathers envisioned democracy, and we now face a national election. But I wouldn’t trust our current Fathers to gather in Philadelphia and draft a Declaration of Independence. I barely expect them to pull together a decent 401K for the sake of their own grandchildren, much less anybody else’s. The politician who dreams for us, who imagines a healthy, realistic future and charts a route to find it—that’s the candidate I want.
 This notion was more current in 2007, given the incredible violence of the previous year. But we’re still not out of the woods.