The 2012 Elections Won't Fix What Ails America

Hope exists, but we will not find it in Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

Americans Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley have won the Nobel economics prize.

Americans Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley have won the Nobel economics prize.

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Louis René Beres is a professor of international law in the department of political science at Purdue University.

With the approach of another presidential election, one thing is perfectly clear. At its heart, America is plainly a broken land. Whether one looks to our airports, our roads, our hospitals, our schools, our homes, our prisons, our banks and corporations, or, especially, our demeaning entertainments, the evidence of deterioration is unassailable. Still, every four years, we look blithely beyond logic, acting as if these insidiously reinforcing circumstances were somehow remediable in politics.

This year, we will experience the same predictable cycles of misjudgment. From the standpoint of creating serious change, our voting will remain largely reflective. It's not that the two candidates don't display tangible and meaningful differences, but rather that each presidential aspirant is structurally incapable of reversing the core sources of societal destruction. These critical underpinnings lie in the generally dreary and desperate daily lives of the citizenry, not in its formal institutions.

Unless we can begin to fix America at the "molecular" level, within the palpable sphere of alienated, downtrodden, and unhappy individuals, there will be no fix at all. The "cliff" that we now face is not just fiscal; it is also deeply personal. No nation that can draw primal satisfaction and comfort from watching The Kardashians can reasonably seek any improvements in politics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Let us be candid. In the poet's genre, "This is the dead land." Recalling T.S. Eliot's prophetic reference to "The Hollow Men" (1925), we now prepare yet again to receive "the supplication of a dead man's hand." What we require, instead, is a far-reaching and enthusiastic return to genuine thought, and, as indispensable corollary, the warming hand of "aliveness."

No president can ever halt the progressive withering of heart and mind that steadily diminishes these United States. No matter how uplifting or authoritative, the candidates' carefully-dried voices can offer us only a misshapen pretense of improvement. For America, hope still exists, of course, but it must now sing softly, in a consciously prudent undertone.

In any deeply serious sense, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are beside the point. This is because national renewal can never come from such candidates themselves. Every society is essentially the sum total of individual souls seeking some form of redemption. Those who pull the electoral strings can never truly mend our manipulated and beaten-down American souls. Ironically, in view of prevailing current complaints, the real problem is not about the candidates' negative campaign ads, but the delusionary visions of their more "positive" ones.

Let us be candid. Every shame can have a patina. We Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false, that even our melancholy is gloss.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Wallowing in the dim twilight of visceral imitation, we display infinite forbearance for empty promises and shallow witticisms. Our lonely American crowd, moreover, harbors a shameful truth. Here, in this substantially broken and pathologically violent land, our expanding debility is largely self-inflicted.

How, then, shall we correctly situate ourselves in an all-promising political universe? What sort of redemption can we ever hope to discover in the "free" or "democratic" exchange of gibberish, clichés, and platitudes? In a world of abundantly dead routine and ubiquitously glorified commerce (what here is not for sale?), why do we insistently waste time seeking salvation at the moldering margins of what is important?

By now, as Emerson and Thoreau had anticipated back in the 19th century, the presumed requirements of buying and selling have utterly supplanted individual dignity. Oddly, the central edifice of American well-being is now based upon a fully addictive hyper-consumption. Ground down by the humiliating babble of pitchmen and politicians, "we the people" are motivated not by any balanced life search for authenticity and meaning, but by the hallowed numbers on retail sales. These sacred numbers are the valued testaments of our truest state religion. In this respect, our floundering American economy, like the flagrantly disjointed society from which it springs, is built entirely upon sand.