Donald Trump’s wobbliness with facts underlines our crying need for objectivity as a value ripe for renewal. Despite differences of perception across the spectrum of class and race, solid data can push against the tsunami of bull that threatens to sweep us off our collective feet. Trump’s immigration rants underscore the statistically verified fact that illegal immigration has been declining for years. His fear mongering about crime fails to account for the extended descent of crime rates in all categories. His exaggerations of international threats belie the fact that there has been a steady worldwide diminishment in the number of wars—even taking into account the ongoing horrors in the Middle East.
Politicians do debate approaches to difficult challenges like terrorism, drugs, poverty or racism. But the context for dialogue is often not an accurate overview, because it is blurred by the need of candidates to win and hold power by pandering. Browbeaten by oversimplified messages, citizens go along with conventional definitions of what constitutes significance. Millions of dollars were wasted by members of congress trying to use the Benghazi issue for political advantage.
Trump’s “colorful” demagoguery has provided an endless supply of juicy headlines. The drive for ratings has weakened the immune system of our media to such an extent that the oversimplified, the sensational and the rankly untrue have metastasized, squeezing aside cool appraisal. Here are three interrelated realities that provide a context for political debate grounded in the real:
First, we have arrived at a super-challenging moment in history where our human presence on the planet is exceeding its carrying capacity. Aside from a few odd ducks in our Congress bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry, no one can deny this. Free-market capitalists are compelled to change their definition of growth from money manipulation, sheer quantity and planned obsolescence to meeting real human needs, quality and sustainability. In the 19th century, corporations had to justify their usefulness to society to receive their lawful charters. Entrepreneurs need only look for potential models of real prosperity to the creativity of natural systems that reuse everything and waste nothing. Without a vibrant, healthy ecosystem, there will be less and less vibrant, healthy people to ensure the success of markets.
Second, it is a relief that war is on the decline, because the destructive power of our nuclear weapons has also exceeded the capacity of the planet to absorb the violence built into them. The impulse to make profits on the renewal of these weapons, rationalized by the apparent success of deterrence theory, will almost certainly lead sooner or later to nuclear war by misunderstanding, computer malfunction or the perception that conventional war is not enough to ensure “victory.” The designers of these weapons have made a devil’s bargain. If the nine nuclear nations could conference their way into gradual, reciprocal disarmament, it would become a precedent-setting example for non-violent solutions to many other challenges—including stabilizing the climate.
Third, not unexpectedly, the American military-industrial-media complex doesn’t foreground systemic alternatives to dominance. People who meet face to face and engage in dialogue about common challenges can build relationship and trust and get beyond fear-based stereotypes and futile hatreds. Even individual U.S. soldiers in places like Afghanistan, struggling to accomplish contradictory policy goals, have been known to do just that with courage and skill. But merely to sell planes, tanks and missiles to other nations is proving to be a bogus way to ensure either loyalty or security—especially when the war of all against all confuses who is friend or foe. What if it turned out that expanding the resources of the Peace Corps while closing some far-off military bases yielded more security in the long run? Imagine an international system based less on big sticks than on monetary incentives, carrots the prosperous nations could easily afford to dangle in front of countries that aspire to score high on an index of representative democracy, transition beyond weapons and armies, transparency, and accountability for corruption. Of course to avoid hypocrisy the prosperous nations dispensing these goodies would have to adhere to similar aspirations.
In our own country, proven devices like ranked-choice voting could help American politics evolve beyond settling for the least bad candidate. And there is no more important task for the United States than to continue to provide safe spaces for religious diversity and to be an example of that possibility to other countries. At their best the great religions show the commonality of worldwide hopes and aspirations. Surely neither God nor Allah smiles with benign approval at the nuclear balance of terror that we still tolerate a half-century after the Cuban crisis. There are objective truths about what will lead to the survival of the species that transcend the differences between Islam, Christianity, and other well-trodden spiritual paths. Most of our biggest challenges, climate change above all, are transnational in nature and require a transreligious level of cooperation never achieved before by our species.
It seems unlikely that the candidates will address such reality-based challenges in the next few months—unless they are prompted by citizens and journalists determined to hold their feet to the fire of the real. Hillary and Donald, what are your thoughts about “nuclear winter” in the context of the hundreds of billions of dollars the congress is planning to spend on renewed nuclear weapons? How might we use these funds more creatively to enhance our security? Why wouldn’t it help global stability and our own security to declare unequivocally that we will never use such weapons first? Given the urgency, shouldn’t we sponsor an ongoing international conference on the abolition of nukes? What is your vision for ending the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya? How are changes in climate affecting the possibility of future conflicts over water and arable land, and what can we do to resolve such conflicts preventively by reallocating resources presently spent on military hardware toward meeting real human needs? Total objectivity may be out of reach, but we can lean in that direction by asking effective questions.