U.S. Election Campaign Could Expose Frightening Realities for America

At the beginning of the month, CNN was frantically advertising a set of “live” debates between the presidential candidates – Democrats Sunday and Republicans Tuesday, with loads of “color commentary” before and after.

This big media show was staged in New Hampshire, whose once-significant early primary election has been reduced – like so much else in our national life – to merely symbolic status now that fifteen other states have crammed theirs into the super-duper U.S. primary day of February 5, 2008.

Since I believe that a collective unconscious operates among groups at all levels of the social hierarchy, including the national level, this extraordinarily early staged contest says a lot about how insecure we must be about our leadership, about our place in the world, and about where we are headed.

US election campaign periods have never been regulated in terms of a set number of weeks or months, the way some other nations do. But the 2008 US election is the first in my lifetime that ramped up to such an intense and formal level of activity so far in advance. If nothing else, the amount of money that the candidates need to raise – and burn through in airplane charters, staff salaries, and staged events – puts them all in jeopardy of corrupting themselves to the various donors desperate to preserve their prerogatives under the status quo.

What everybody seems to sense semi-consciously is that the status quo is dragging the United States into an abyss. But so far, no one among the declared candidates has been able or willing to express a coherent view of what it is in the status quo, exactly, that is doing the dragging. One undeclared figure, Al Gore, has presented the climate change part of the story and pretty much stopped there – perhaps sensing that if he ventured to offer views on anything else, he’d start sounding like an actual candidate. But my guess is that the really important issues will never be articulated in the course of this campaign because they are too painful for the public to hear. And so all the premature debating and posturing will amount to a smokescreen of words meant to conceal the fact that we are a nation without confidence that any leadership can guide us into a plausible future.

In the background of all this sits the pathetic figure of President George W. Bush. He’s pathetic because he has been in a position – not facing reelection – to tell the American people the truth, but he’s shown no capacity for apprehending it. If he represents anything, it’s the idea that the truth is optional, that if reality is disappointing, just create your own reality.

Here are the some of truths that we seem unable to face:

Very soon we won’t have the fossil fuel energy supplies to run the USA as it is currently set up, and no combination of wished-for alternative energy schemes based on so-called “renewables” will allow us to keep running it, either. Meaning that we’d better start making other arrangements immediately for how we occupy the landscape, how we grow our food, how we move people and things from place to place, and how we reconstruct an economy consistent with these new arrangements.

The longer we put off making these new arrangements, the harder we’re going to slam into a wall of reality, and when it occurs a lot of things will shake loose in this country. It will become self-evident that the things we’ve invested all our wealth in will not retain value – especially suburban real estate and all the activities related to car dependency, from the interstate highway system to national chain retail. It will also become obvious that we can’t base our economy on building more of this stuff.

Our current military adventures in the Middle East, are predicated largely on keeping the old arrangements going. We’re in Iraq because we built Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Long Island the way we did, and the only way we can hope to keep these organisms going even a little while longer is to keep open our oil supply line to the Persian Gulf. The truth is, these organisms will not survive the oil-scarcer future in the form they’re in. The American people need to come to grips with this. No amount of chest-thumping around the globe will change it. In any case, sooner or later we’ll exhaust our military and bankrupt ourselves trying to project our influence into these places overseas – meaning sooner or later we will withdraw back into our own hemisphere. I wonder if Wolf Blitzer of CNN will ask any of the candidates ‘What happens then?’

A basic rule of reality is that you can’t get something for nothing. Sooner or later the financial sector will have to come to grips with this rule, which confirms that debt is not wealth and the revolving reallocation of debt in the form of credit does not amount to wealth creation. The United States will arrive at a magic moment when the full force of this reality reasserts itself, and it is likely to make itself manifest in the collapse of the entity most closely associated the idea of wealth: the dollar. Assets vested in the dollar’s legitimacy will follow its fate. The implication is that an awful lot of the presumed wealth held by Americans could vanish into thin air. Do any of the candidates for president recognise how this works, or have any idea how much disorder this phase change will send thundering through our sociopolitical infrastructure?

With the election campaign revving up so prematurely, it is very possible that all the candidates now in the arena will exhaust, bankrupt, and even disgrace their campaigns as they desperately pirouette around these painful truths, and that none of them will survive the process with their political legitimacy intact. In the meantime, unsettling events on the outside will intrude on the protective bubble in which the public has taken shelter -more bloody disturbances around the Middle East, dangerous shenanigans in the financial markets, untoward weather events in vulnerable places.

The premature election campaign, with all its reassuring televised ceremonies of pre-cooked debate and formal posturing, may end up having the opposite of its intended effect. It may expose the more frightening reality that our political system is not up to the challenges before us.

And then what will we do?


James Howard Kunstler
for Markets and Money

James Howard Kunstler

(born 1948) is an American author, social critic, and blogger who is perhaps best known for his book The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia and urban development in the United States. He is prominently featured in the peak oil documentary, The End of Suburbia, widely circulated on the internet. In his most recent book, The Long Emergency (2005), he argues that declining oil production is likely to result in the end of industrialized society and force Americans to live in localized, agrarian communities.

James Howard Kunstler

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