October 27, 2014

GLICK | The Ebola Election

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Correction appended

No one talks about elections anymore. That’s not to say that no one’s talking about the news; in fact, there have been few times during my prior three years at Cornell when our campus has been so utterly preoccupied with current events. But those conversations, by and large, are dominated by fear-mongering buzzwords: namely, ebola and ISIS. As our nation careens towards election day, our television sets remain transfixed on quarantine sites and execution videos. This is, of course, symptomatic of a national tendency towards hysteria, as so aptly described by David Fischer ’15 in his column last week. But there is something more sinister about having these two threats — looking more and more each day as if they were lifted from the scripts of B-list thriller movies — move to the forefront of the news cycle in the days before the 2014 midterms.

Though Congress has done a phenomenal job of convincing the American people that it is immobile and irrelevant, we cannot afford to let ourselves believe that our national destiny now lies in the hands of the Ron Klain (the new “ebola cazar”) and the pilots dropping bombs, once more, over the Iraqi deserts. Our campus has, in large part, fallen for it. The Cornell Republicans are hosting the ousted congressional firebrand, Allen West, to lead on American foreign policy in the 21st century, and the first word in the event title is “ISIS.” In October, The Sun has given more ink to the University’s ebola preparedness than to issues of financial aid, sexual assault or even changes to University administration. It is so tempting to seize these headlines and dismiss the upcoming elections as self-perpetuating political noise, but we should not let the next week pass without recognizing that what happens in seven days’ time will probably be of more historical consequence than the location of the next U.S. ebola case.

Why? For half the student body, this will be our second election at Cornell; in November 2012, we had our moment in the sun, as college students got caught up in the groundswell of a presidential race. For freshmen and sophomores, that race is yet to come. But midterm elections, especially this one, seem to be all about voter-turnout drives in faraway states where neither candidate seems very eloquent or very admirable. Of course CNN is peddling narratives of rising caliphates and unstoppable disease; those apocalyptic scenarios are much more engaging than anything embattled Senator Mark Udall (D-Col.) has said. And of course The Sun, when faced with a congressional race between Tom Reed and Martha Robertson ’75 that is looking increasingly like a footnote in the political history of 2014, would rather discuss Tompkins County’s ebola preparedness. Yes, the elections seem that boring.

But they aren’t. Not since 2004 — before any of us were likely paying attention — have we seen so many elections still within the margin of error. And yet the media cannot tear itself away from the disasters it has blown out of proportion. Disaster, chaos, tragedy: it all seems apolitical, as the nation huddles together as the world burns, but the ceaseless coverage of these developments have very political consequences. This election is now about fear. The threats that we see now arrayed against our nation seem so daunting they are almost fictional, and Republican challengers have taken this overblown press coverage as proof of gross governmental incompetence: President Obama isn’t just bad  — he’s apocalyptically bad. And, unlike in 2010, this media-enabled exaggeration of the President’s failings does not result in a debate on policy (2010 was the year of Obamacare). Now, this hysteria has lent credence to a narrative that seeks to destroy public trust in government and swap in politicians who fail to see why the public should trust the government in the first place. Obama’s messed up on ebola, so let’s re-elect a senator who has voted repeatedly to cut public health funding. Obama’s messed up on ISIS, so let’s elect an isolationist who would see the Middle East tear itself apart so long as we still have oil. The cognitive dissonance between Americans’ fears and the seemingly natural political reactions to those fears is more apparent than ever before.

So what can we do? All of us — whether we’re waiting for a second round interview at Goldman or protesting University policy on Ho Plaza — should want this election to be about issues. The fates of ISIS and ebola most probably do not hinge on whether Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a sour minority leader or a slightly-less-sour majority leader in the Senate, but the economic agenda laid out before the American people most certainly does. If races continue to tilt towards Republican candidates, a conservative Congress could spend the next two years piling up bills for President Obama to veto. And then, instead of staying the “Party of No,” the GOP can swagger into 2016, pointing to the failed, utopian economic initiatives that Democrats have refused to endorse, promising to enact them as soon as their man (as opposed to “their woman”) moves into the White House. For the first time in over a decade, a Congress entirely controlled by Republicans would have a positive responsibility to articulate a vision to the American people, rather than simply reject the visions proposed by their left-of-center rivals. For the first time, Republican politicians would have the chance to pass laws, which would — even if they are never signed — reach the Oval Office desk. That is a thrilling (if somewhat terrifying) possibility, and whether or not it will still come to pass is still very much in doubt. We should pay attention. And if Republican candidates would rather talk about ebola than their legislative agenda, we ought to call them out. That might be a way to win, but it’s no way to govern.

Correction: This article previously incorrectly referred to Martha Robertson ’75.

Jacob Glick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.