America is nearing the end of its most expensive political campaign season ever. According to the Washington Post, Presidential campaigns and the super PACS that support them will spend more than $2 billion by Election Day. Add in the Congressional races and the total climbs to approximately $5.8 billion, and could go higher (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2012/08/2012-election-will-be-costliest-yet.html). That is a staggering number.
I would guess that most of us are tired of, if not dismayed by, the strident tone, the inaccuracies, and the cumulative, relentless negativity of the campaigns. All too frequently what we see, hear, and read during the campaigns appears to have the purposes of generating fear, not hope; of creating divisions, not unity; of fomenting hatred, not kindness; of obscuring the truth, not revealing it; of sowing confusion, not understanding. I am concerned that the end result of such campaigns is a weaker America, not a stronger one. It seems to me that, if America is to retain its global leadership, and be a model of representative, democratic government for the world, then our government needs to function effectively and well. However, it appears that we are devoted to spending billions to insure just the opposite.
A grave example of our current inability to govern ourselves is the looming fiscal cliff over which we are poised to leap in January 2013. The consequences of the mandated, massive reductions in discretionary spending will be truly devastating to America’s economic prosperity and global leadership. Why? Because the scheduled reductions of $57.5 billion over 2013-2017 in America’s funding for research and development (see http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/fy2013/SeqBrief.shtml) will inflict wide-spread and debilitating damage to our nation’s capabilities in science, engineering, and technology.
Unless amended, research and development in the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Commerce, NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior will be reduced substantially. America’s security and prosperity will be damaged for years to come.
This threat is a product of the debilitating, uncompromising partisanship generated in part by the last election. And now we appear to be spending billions in an all-out effort to make our situation worse, many of our citizens more alienated, and our competitive position weaker. Meanwhile, India, China, the EU and others are pouring resources into research, development, and higher education.
What should be done? Well first, we should insist that the President and Congress build a bipartisan solution to avoid the mandated budget reductions and tax increases set to begin in 2013. It is, after all, exactly what they intended – that these potentially devastating steps would create powerful incentives to craft an acceptable budget compromise. I do not know what the most effective solution to the current poisonous election climate might be. But no one ever solved a problem without admitting it existed. Let’s do that, and then work together on the solution. I think America’s colleges and universities can play an important role in crafting the solution. We should intensify our efforts to promote and facilitate reasoned debate on America’s policy options. We should advocate strengthening the roles of critical analysis, scientific data, and accurate information in decision-making and policy development. And we should strive to build the kinds of communities on our campuses where discourse and debate are civil, responsible, and respectful. Our research universities have helped America solve large problems in the past and we can do so again.