Hold on to your hats! November is here. As we round the corner to what has increasingly deteriorated into a vitriolic and polarizing campaign cycle, it behooves us to step back and consider what exactly is at stake when Americans go to the polls this Tuesday, November 6th.
The US presidential election cannot be squarely pegged as a referendum on the performance of President Barack Obama’s administration over the last four years. Granted there is a deep rift between many policies endorsed by President Obama and Governor Romney, policy differences are just the icing on the cake of what is at stake in this year’s American election.
More profoundly, this election is about two candidates with fundamentally different philosophies about the role of the state, individual rights, and the global commons. The ideological incongruence of President Obama and Governor Romney, in turn, makes this election a zero-sum game where the stakes are particularly high for the losing party.
One fundamental issue on which the candidates are diametrically opposed is the appropriate function of the state. Consider the contrasting interpretations of public versus private goods espoused by each presidential candidate. Healthcare, education, and social security are generally considered public goods that the state is responsible for overseeing. Yet, President Obama and Governor Romney have vastly different views on the degree to which states should be responsible for providing these goods. President Obama passed a universal healthcare plan; supports increased federal funding for Pell grants, making education more affordable; and staunchly opposes social security privatization. At odds with President Obama is Governor Romney who vows to repeal Obamacare, advises entrepreneurial students to borrow money from their parents to kick start businesses, and chose as his running mate Paul Ryan, the architect of the most comprehensive plan to date to privatize social security.
Within the social sphere, the election has prompted debate over what constitutes pliable versus fixed social norms. Should rape, for instance, be viewed as an inevitable part of life? Should we, like Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, resign ourselves to the idea that rape is an act of God? Perhaps a reflection of the near historic gender gap in this election (according to statistical guru Nate Silver, President Obama holds a 9 point lead among women), social conservatives have also made this election about women’s rights. More to the point, they have made this election about restricting women’s rights, most notably by revamping efforts to challenge Roe v. Wade.
We should not lose sight of the fact that the consequences of this election will spill over beyond US borders. As a US student studying in the UK, this is all the more clear in the attention the US election receives in the news media and the interest in American politics by British people in general. There seems to be a common understanding that US elections matter, particularly since the US rose to become the world’s most dominant global actor after the Cold War.
Collective problems that transcend borders, such as global warming or terrorist cells, require international resolve and cooperation. While President Obama and Governor Romney have prioritized US interests in foreign affairs, both candidates differ substantially in their approach to global governance and, more fundamentally, on the sorts of issues they deem relevant. For instance, President Obama has been adamant about the need to restrict certain human activities that cause global climate change, while Governor Romney denies that global climate change exists, let alone that it is caused by human activities.
In sum, this November 6th is not merely a referendum on policy decisions made in the last four years. Rather, this election is about choosing between two largely incompatible philosophies that will have broad implications for the role of the state, individual rights, and our global commons. The stakes are high no matter how you flip the coin.