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.
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.
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.