Despite the excitement surrounding this year’s presidential primaries, American democracy is in big trouble. Sen. John McCain has served his country bravely and on occasion he shows commendable independence. Sen. Barack Obama provides a welcome voice for national unity after decades of partisan wrangling and government paralysis.
But, given the scale of our national problems, personal integrity, bipartisan civility, and inspiring appeals to our better nature will not be enough to break the logjams created by interest groups, identity politics, and widespread denial of responsibility for public life.
Both candidates pick away at the Bush administration’s blunders, promise to do a better job using the military, avoid serious questions about the goals of foreign policy, tell the poor and workers that they feel their pain, and try to persuade the rich that they will be better off with more competent leadership. There are serious differences about Iraq, the economy and, critically, the Supreme Court, but neither McCain nor Obama seems prepared to challenge chronic inequality at home and a unilateral, unending search for national security abroad. Barack Obama’s idealistic appeals for a fresh start may well bring him to the White House, but he will need better ideas and the support of a new, organized reform movement if he is to redeem America’s democratic promise.