Having had some time to digest my three weeks in Europe, I am struck by the extent to which the European political and media culture is generally sophisticated and serious. During the French election and Gordon Brown’s ascension there was no talk of how gay marriage posed a threat to Western Civilization, no debate over evolution, not a single word about whether a woman’s right to choose should be revoked, and the politicians never argued over whose fealty to god was stronger. With decades of experience fighting terrorism, Europeans are fully engaged in the intelligence and police work necessary to, if not eliminate the threat, greatly reduce the risks, and the citizenry do not live in fear. The media in Europe is much more aggressive than in the U.S., and the tough questions are almost always asked.
None of this is meant to romanticize Europe and European political culture. Europeans have plenty of contradictions and serious problems of their own. The parliamentary systems they employ often end up in gridlock, the assimilation of Muslim immigrants has been terribly slow, and there are serious structural issues in many of their economies that will be difficult to address. But I am confident that the Europeans will ultimately be up to the task; talk of the “demise of Europe”, particularly by commentators on America’s political right, is extremely overblown.
When you contrast the seriousness and sophistication of European political and media culture with the last six plus years in the States, America comes out looking infantile. On issue after issue American politics has been reduced to soundbites best befitting a grade B movie or a network sitcom. More time has been spent debating a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage than on some of our biggest national security issues. More time has been spent rallying against immigration reform than on global warming. While much of the blame for the debasing of American political culture rests with the GOP and the rightwing noise machine that supports it, the Democrats have not been free of blame. They have been cowed into defensiveness and posturing of their own.
There are encouraging signs, however, that the American people are tired of the level to which our political discourse has sunk and a return to seriousness is imminent. Bush’s approval ratings are at historic lows and there is a real sense that people finally see through all of the lies, stupidity, and incompetence of this Administration (according to the Pew Research Center, “incompetent” is the word most people now associate with President Bush).
Last week I was ecstatic to read about the TV anchorwoman who refused to cover the Paris Hilton saga and instead continued with a discussion about serious issues. As always, the blogosphere is ahead of the mainstream media, and beginning to do investigative reporting of its own that is top-notch. While this medium was in its infancy during the 2004 campaign, it showed its strength in 2006, and it will be an even more powerful force in 2008.
The Democratic “big three” – Obama, Clinton, and Edwards – are all serious figures who have helped to raise the political discourse to a more sophisticated level. No one can accuse any of them of being ideologues. On the GOP side I wish I could say the same thing about the top contenders – Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and Thompson – but I can’t. Aside from McCain, who is a serious person regardless of one’s opinion of his politics, the others have displayed many of the same traits that have gotten us into the messes we now face. Given Romney’s bizarre statement that he wants to double the size of Guantanamo (for no apparent reason other than to sound tough), and Rudy’s being unaware that North Korea’s nuclear program is farther along than Iran’s, and Fred Thompson’s sheer vacuity, one can only hope that some serious GOP politicians are waiting to enter the fray.
Above all I want the 2008 campaign to be focused on serious issues by serious people, regardless of party. Anything less would be a blow to America and the world.