I’m not in the habit of quoting lines from movies I’ve appeared in, but every once in a while, something brings one of those old lines to mind. Recently, I’ve been thinking of a scene from a film I did in 1972 called “The Candidate.”
My character, Bill McKay, is running for the US Senate from California. At the end of a televised debate, McKay is prompted to give his closing statement. He veers off script – casting aside the careful messages his consultants had crafted – and speaks from the heart. “I think it’s important to note what subjects we haven’t discussed,” he says. He mentions race, and poverty and urban blight. “We haven’t discussed any of the sicknesses that may yet send this country up in flames.”
I’ve thought of that scene as I’ve watched the land near my home in California go up in flames – literally. The wildfires there, like the ones in Oregon and Washington and Colorado, did draw some news coverage, as you’d expect them to. But climate change – which is creating the conditions for fires like these and for extreme, destructive weather of other kinds – isn’t being discussed to any meaningful degree.
According to a new analysis of Americans who rely on major broadcasters as their source of news, only 20% feel “very well-informed” about climate change. Other than the time last month that Donald Trump said “science doesn’t know” whether our planet is overheating, climate change has barely registered in media coverage.
The equatorial rainforests of South America, Africa, and Asia are being destroyed at a staggering rate – and at a rising cost to biodiversity and the quality of our air and water – yet outside of environmental circles, this is largely not considered news.
Of course, I’m as aware as anyone that we’re only weeks away from Election Day. Our country, reasonably enough, is consumed with questions about the pandemic; the state of the President’s physical and mental health after his Covid-19 diagnosis; the federal government’s failure to extend relief for unemployed Americans and struggling small businesses; concerns about the integrity of our election; our ongoing reckoning with systemic racism. And that’s hardly a complete list. It’s a lot to lie awake thinking about. In the tech world, they talk about information overload. We’ve all got it.
Couple that with the President’s constant attempts to change the subject, and it’s not surprising that key issues get ignored – particularly the root causes of issues, which require the press to dig deeper.
So we hear about the plot by a group of men to “storm” the Michigan capitol building and kidnap the governor, but not about the laws and court rulings that allowed far-right protesters to bring guns into the state Senate gallery last spring and loom above the lawmakers.
We hear a lot about the shocking rate of Covid-19 infections affecting senior citizens, but much less about the chronically crowded, unsafe conditions in nursing homes – “death pits,” as a former New York lieutenant governor has called them. And for all the valid concern about the peaceful transfer of power after an election, when the President has refused to commit to it, there is too little discussion of the structural reasons our democracy fails to represent a majority of the American people.
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Maybe it’s too much to suggest, at the peak of a presidential campaign, that we have a serious discussion about burning rainforests or understaffed long-term care facilities. Complex problems don’t make great campaign issues. They don’t rally your base; they don’t get people to the polls (or the post office). But these are not subjects that are going to patiently wait their turn, that are going to hang back in line until we’re ready to talk about them.
For all these reasons, it’s my hope that this November will provide a hard reset – of our national direction, most of all, but also our national attention.
An election is democracy’s pivot point. It’s a moment that should prompt us, all of us, to refocus on what really matters. That list of issues is longer and more daunting than it has been for generations.
When the campaign merry-go-round finally stops, when the cycle of charges and counter-charges finally ceases, we can turn to the subjects we haven’t discussed. And we can begin to answer the question that my character, Bill McKay, asks at the end of the movie: “What do we do now?”