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The presidential debate, viewed from the left

Two lefty journalists suggest that Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama agree on most fundamental issues.

Robert Scheer: "Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama because he was more energetic in distorting the significance of their miniscule differences."
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In a 1998 book titled “The Common Good,” Noam Chomsky wrote:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Over the weekend, two lefty journalists looked back at Wednesday’s presidential debate, suggesting that Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama agree on most fundamental issues but, because of the limited spectrum of acceptable opinion, are able to make their small differences look vast.

Writing for Truthdig, Robert Scheer wrote that “Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama because he was more energetic in distorting the significance of their miniscule differences.”

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Take the health-care issue, for example. It’s true, of course, that the Obamacare program was based on the model that Romney championed and signed as governor of Massachusetts, but which Romney now denounces and pledges to repeal and replace with a less-intrusive version that he declines to describe with much specificity. But a debate about whether Obamacare is exactly like Romneycare or only very much like Romneycare becomes the excuse to not even discuss simpler, stronger alternatives like a Canadian-style single-payer system, which, Scheer asserts, would be a much better approach to covering everyone at lower cost:

It is absurd to depict this rhetorical stew of superficial nitpicking by two candidates with a proven record of subservience to the Wall Street bandits responsible for wrecking our economy as a meaningful exercise in democratic governance. Both would rather talk about anything but Wall Street’s financing and control of both parties and chose instead to dwell on their nonexistent differences over health care reform.

Writing for the British-based Guardian, Glenn Greenwald uses different examples to make a similar case that the Tweedle-dee Tweedle-dumness of the two major American parties rules out any discussion of isues that, from a global perspective, are key elements of what the big thinkers like to call American exceptionalism.

Most of what matters in American political life is nowhere to be found in its national election debates. Penal policies vividly illustrate this point. America imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation on earth by far, including countries with far greater populations. As the New York Times reported in April 2008: “The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

Scheer and Greenwald run through more examples of the issues that don’t get discussed and mock the current meme that the Dem/Repub election presents a stark choice between two fundamentally different approaches to governing America.

And I should mention that the ideological and especially libertarian right also features many issues and arguments far more radical than anything Romney would support.

Channeling the Chomsky point from the top of this post, Greenwald argued:

The harm from this process is not merely the loss of what could be a valuable opportunity to engage in a real national debate. Worse, it is propagandistic: by emphasising the few issues on which there is real disagreement between the parties, the election process ends up sustaining the appearance that there is far more difference between the two parties, and far more choice for citizens, than is really offered by America’s political system.