Listening to the recent debates among the candidates, monitoring their Websites and reading the poll numbers, one gets the impression that the Republican and Democratic primary electorates are living in two different nations -- or the same nation that faces two very different threats.So, if Democrats and Republicans have different top concerns, where will that lead us in the election next year?
The Republicans want to protect us against Islamist terrorists. The Democrats want to protect us against climate change. Each side believes the other's fears are largely imaginary.
Both threats are, in different ways, known unknowns. We don't know where the next Islamist attack will come -- Fort Dix? JFK Airport? -- or when. We don't know the effects of warming temperatures, or at what rate they might become apparent. And we can't be sure whether our efforts to parry either of these threats will be availing. We can try to track down loose nukes, shadow suspected terrorists, protect the very many vulnerable potential targets in our open society. But the terrorists only have to succeed once, and we must succeed every time.
Similarly, we don't know to what extent a reduction in carbon emissions will reduce global warming. Some scientists tell us that there has been greater climate change in past history due to factors over which we have no control -- such as solar cycles and shifting ocean currents. In the 1930s, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin predicted that "the bomber will always get through." We fear the terrorist will always get through, and we know the sun will.
Truth be told, down a bad path because the GOP has so screwed the pooch that they may not be able to recover for a couple of election cycles. Here is where individual and group psychology come into play.
As a individual, each person may have different fears, whether it be global climate change, terrorism, nanny statism or aliens flying down in UFOs to destroy us a la Independence Day. We may act on those fears and we may plan for that future. Individuals are capable of long term planning and forethought in ways that we collective are incapable of mastering.
The history of the United States is one long study in poor planning for the future and even poorer reaction to impending problems. Long term fianncial threats like Social Security and Medicare fudning get lots of rhetorical time, but little time spent on real solutions. Problems that are years or decades in the making, like the seeds of terrorism fail to garner our attention until thousands die in a horrific manner on CNN. Natual cataclysms, like global warming, which take decades, even centuries to detect remain largely the concern of a few and impact even fewer on a day to day basis.
I don't know if global warming is real, I am, however, pretty sure that terrorism is real and that financial crises of Social Security and Medicare are real, even if their scope is not clear. I know that we as a nation have a crime problem, we have concerns over education, healthcare, safety, morality and other issues.
But I am just one member of the group and the group is unusually involved with the here and now. Immediate threats, immediate concerns overwhelmingly occupy our national attention. It is not that we as a nation don't want to think about the future, but it is hard to collectively think about the future when you are wondering if the next time you get on teh subway or an airplane that you won't become a statistic or your plane won't become a weapon in some jihadi plot. It is hard to think about future plans when your today has enough worry.
When voters go to the polls, they may care about global warming, but they worry about terrorism and the hundred other issues that directly affect their lives. Global warming may make a person think, but their thought may be, "well, that is a concern, but we need to address these other issues first." They then vote accordingly.
That is where the GOP is in trouble. Too many of the leaders have their head in the sand (or in worse places) that they have lost touch with an electorate that is largely pre-disposed to their viewpoint. The end result is that we may get a President in 2008 more worried about a distant future and as a result, brush aside immediate concerns.