Rebuilding Political Consensus - and America too

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

The incredible jubilation felt by the students sitting in the CoHo on Election Night 2008 was almost overpowering for those of us warily watching from the chocolate-colored sofas. There was a palpable sense in the air, unwarranted as it would turn out, that the world had suddenly become brighter, that America was going to rid itself of the damage of the Bush era and bring back liberalism into politics.

Fast-forward to today, and those halcyon images seem only fleeting against the backdrop of the current political environment. President Obama's approval rating rating has plummeted across the country (and among students here as well), and it appears that the upcoming midterm elections, regardless of their outcome, will undermine the mandate he has used to push his agenda.

That is unfortunate, for while Obama's plans are certainly variable in their quality, all of them are part of a needed big vision for this country. As someone in the middle of the spectrum, it pains me to see a country like America with such a grand view of our mission on Earth to be thwarted repeatedly by special interest groups and intense partisan politics.

Thinking big is what made America the country it is today. Franklin Delano Roosevelt built the modern social safety net from scratch despite intense opposition in Congress while also defeating some of the most fearsome regimes in human history. Truman initiated the Marshall Plan to rebuild an entire continent - a plan that is still paying dividends today. At home, Eisenhower built the interstate highway system which remains the bedrock of transportation in America.

Today, we need that kind of big thinking if America is going to position itself well for the twenty-first century. In "The Post American World," Fareed Zakaria notes that America's decline will not be caused by the rise of China or India but rather by ourselves. It is our inability to take leadership on our own country's needs that endangers our position in the world. Simply, our lack of consensus on the big issues is hurting us deeply.

Just what are these big issues? First, there needs to be more consensus on the intense value of knowledge in our future economy. We see this issue in the large budget cuts to higher education that state governments have handed down over the past year, and we see it in the high levels of inequality in American public schools. This situation fundamentally undermines the long-term economic growth of this country, yet, budget decisions remain decidedly focused on the short-term. America needs better educated citizens across the board, and a consensus has to develop to make this a reality.

Another example is energy independence. There is debate at just how independent America can be in energy, and there is continuing debate about the timing of peak oil. Nonetheless, it is clear that America's energy portfolio needs to be re-envisioned for the energy mix arriving in the next few decades. In these very pages, Teryn Norris argued for students to help develop a new consensus on our future energy sources. Unfortunately, a consensus has not developed, hindering our ability to invest in the future.

Infrastructure development, especially internet access, will prove crucial for the economic vitality of our nation. The stimulus bill passed last year was an important first step, but what remains to be seen is whether a long-term commitment can be sustained to fund these important initiatives.

Finally, America needs to begin conceiving a new plan for urban development that places new urbanism at the center of our city planning. America's cities are designed with the car firmly at the center of transportation. We now know that those choices have led to a transit culture that increases stress and pollution and hinders community development. Building green cities is necessary for our long-term economic performance, even though no consensus seems to have been formed.

The common theme between these four examples, and indeed, all the grand visions needed today is the lack of consensus on long-term initiatives that will greatly influence America's standing in the coming century. The lack of immediate feedback allows these issues to be easily pushed to the side in favor of more immediate (and, I would argue, more partisan) policies.

During that Election Night, I watched warily because I did not believe that political consensus had been formed (the election was 53% to 46%). Instead, I am left with the hope that a new third party may rise up in the coming years and develop the moderate middle into a powerful political force. America has only a finite time to lay the groundwork for the maintenance of our international position. The time to act has to be now.