Policy versus populism

The first US presidential debate is less than a week away and while it will certainly offer spectacle and entertainment, I am hoping, perhaps naively, that the candidates will finally engage in a serious discussion of how they will confront the complex and daunting challenges America will face in the coming decade.

The debate topics – America’s direction, achieve prosperity, and securing America – broadly suggest some of the biggest policy issues the future US president will face. These include climate change, the civil war and instability in Syria and Iraq, nuclear proliferation, growing inequality within the US, Russia’s increasing aggressiveness and insecurity in Europe, and tension with China in the South and East China seas.

Given the significant absence of serious policy analysis in the campaign so far, I visited the candidates’ campaign websites to familiarise myself with their policy positions and was struck by the stark differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in depth and breadth.

Clinton’s campaign website lists 39 broad policy areas, each with detailed descriptions of why the issues are important, what the goals are, and how they would be pursued once Clinton were in office.

In contrast, Trump’s campaign website offers nine policy positions – including the infamous wall along the border with Mexico.

I am quite possibly naïve in my hope that there will be some substantive discussion of policy during the debate. The obsession with Clinton’s emails, and the speculation about her health, which has at times veered into outright conspiracy theories, have distracted from detailed analysis of her positions on deeply complex issues.

Her campaign’s solutions for Syria’s intractable civil war, or how she realistically expects to garner Congressional support for financial sector and tax reform, deserve close scrutiny.

On the other hand, analysis of Trump’s policies is a slightly more problematic, and indeed urgent, task mostly because those policies are either non-existent or absurdly fantastical. It’s worth reading Trump’s full statement about how he will compel Mexico to pay for the border wall if only to marvel at the fact that such material is part of an official presidential campaign.

The absence of any close comparative analysis isn’t unusual in an era that favours what Brendon O’Connor has called therapeutic politics, where how the candidates make us feel matters more than specific policy detail.

One of the themes of this election year that informs both campaigns is American exceptionalism. While Trump’s campaign has taken a decidedly negative tone, painting an apocalyptic picture of the future, both candidates promise to restore a greatness that America once had but appears to have lost in recent decades.

While this appeal to American uniqueness has a long history, it is unlikely that either Clinton or Trump will be able to magically unite the country and fix the problems America faces.

Across the continent its infrastructure is crumbling, inequality at every level of society has increased exponentially over the past 30 years, and American citizens are more politically divided than they have been for more than three decades.

While Clinton has addressed investing in infrastructure renewal and some of the causes of the growing inequality, Trump so far has largely engaged in divisive rhetoric that has exacerbated America’s fears about their future.

In the realm of foreign policy America faces equally complex and seemingly intractable problems. On terrorism and the Syrian civil war, the outlook is decidedly pessimistic. Clinton’s position is remarkably similar to what the Obama administration is already doing – while Trump’s suggestions regarding Syria have been simplistic at best.

One notable absentee from Trump’s website is climate change. Given the seriousness with which the majority of the world’s regard it, Trump’s denial of the science and claim that it is a conspiracy crafted by the Chinese government to disadvantage America, I am definitely looking forward to hearing Clinton challenge him on this particular topic.

Given the gravity of the issues America faces it is essential that the candidates take the debate seriously. I want the debate on Monday to be a fierce political sparring match. Whether that’s likely remains to be seen.

Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

This article first appeared in The Conversation.