Where change can occur and where it can't
November 6, 2008 | 11:10 AMRyan Enos
Change has been the focal point of this election. Obama and McCain both used it as a theme. It was almost inevitable that change would be the focal point in a time of such anxiety and dissatisfaction. And that Obama personified a break from the status quo, made the idea of change even more powerful.
It remains to be seen, of course, how much change can be brought about by his presidency. Even with single party control of Congress and the presidency, our system of government is designed to make change difficult to affect. But the sense that voters believe that change is coming was unmistakable. The images of people in different countries enthusiastically cheering Obama's election seems to indicate that the whole world believes Obama has the capability to bring change – whatever exactly that may mean.
If Obama can lead Congress to make changes in the areas of national health care, energy conservation, and other policy areas where change has been so stubborn in coming, but where there is a national consensus, it will appear that some that the hope pinned to his presidency has been justified.
However, it is also important to remember what will not change. There are quite serious policy areas in which Obama has not promised change and probably will not attempt. Some of these policies are so deeply embedded in our country that it is difficult to see how they would ever change – despite their critical importance. I will focus some here that deserve mention because they have very serious consequences for our country:
Military Spending and Arms Trade
It is difficult to overstate how integrated into our economy the military is. Thousands of companies do large scale business with the Pentagon. We also spend more on our military, by a huge margin than any other country in the world. We could argue that a dangerous world makes this necessary, but it cannot be an ideal use of our resources. In a country where our military is second to none, but our schools are near the worst of the developed world, this cannot be the way we should want to have our resources allocated. It will take a dramatic shift in foreign policy to cause this not to be true. The presence of our military spread across the world makes the military a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
The military aside, the proportion of the U.S. economy that is supported by foreign arms sales should give all Americans pause. Our economy is structured in such a way that we basically only export movies and weapons. That weapons have no other purpose than to kill means that this cannot be a good thing.
More than 1 in 100 U.S adults are in prison. In some populations, notably African-American males, the proportion of the population involved in the criminal justice system is tremendous. This is a direct result of a dominant national philosophy of crime fighting by incarceration. There is very good reason to believe that our current policies of incarceration do not reduce crime. But regardless of whether one agrees that such policies do not reduce crime, the trend in incarceration rates is simply not sustainable. In many states, like California, the prison population has reached a crisis point and something has to give. We can no longer maintain a prison population of that size while maintaining our ideals of justice of humane treatment and funding critical parts of our public priorities, like schools. Of course, this is not likely to be fixed as long as criminal prosecution remains an easily exploitable political issue. The issue is also intimately tied to drug policy, an issue on which there is a political norm to maintain the status quo. Until a politician, like a popular president is willing to expend the political capital and have the courage to lead on this issue, then it will continue to spiral out of control.
Every politician running for President still feels it is necessary to support the death penalty. We remain one of the only Westernized countries with such a policy and it persists, despite little evidence that it detours crime or saves costs, and continued evidence that it is applied unequally across the population.
On the same night that Obama symbolically overcame centuries of oppression and discrimination for a minority group, voters in the largest state in the nation displayed shocking bigotry by repealing the right of gays to marry. The misinformation behind the campaign was sickening and, although I am sure there are individuals that honestly believed the issue was about schools and children, the proposition outlawing gay marriage would never have passed if it were it not for widespread anti-gay bias. And that, for the most part, the rest of the nation sat and watched while civil rights were targeted and destroyed in California, demonstrates that nationally discrimination against gays is okay. I do not know what politicians like Obama actually think about this issue, but still none of them feel secure enough to publicly support the right of everyone in this country to marry.
Obama's election had a material impact for exactly one African-American (four if you count his family). Economic inequality remains dramatic in the United States, as does inequality in every single measure of quality of life and social well-being. You may notice that Obama avoided talk of racial justice in his campaign. This is because dealing with racial issues on a symbolic level, like electing a president is much more difficult than dealing with racial issues on a practical level, like welfare and affirmative-action. Practically dealing with racial issues remains a political lightening-rod that is easily exploitable.
The common theme across all of these issues is that even if politicians have personal beliefs that change is necessary across these issues, change is hard to come by. This is because the issues are so easily politically exploitable that no candidate for national office will support change. No one wants to be labeled anti-military, pro-criminal, pro-gay, or pro-welfare. Neither Obama or McCain were willing to take stands on these issues that were remotely outside the mainstream.
The problem is that these issues are sapping both our treasury and moral standing. Imagine though if a leader that is popular and charismatic, and commands a great deal of political capital is willing to declare himself pro-peace, pro-reform, and pro-equality. We need a leader that is willing and has the power to take this risk. One that did, and could affect change, would truly leave a profound legacy in this country.
Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs and professor of political science.
Professor of education, law, political science and urban plannning.
Professor of urban planning, social welfare, and Asian American studies.
Professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
Professor of public policy.
Associate professor of public policy.
Associate professor of political science and director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.
Assistant professor-in-residence of medicine.
Assistant professor of political science.
Assistant professor of communication studies.
Ph.D. candidate in political science.
Graduate student in political science.