This storm could upend American politics -- if we're lucky.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
One reason U.S. politics is almost as popular as NASCAR among American sports is that it gives the little guy someone to root for. Of course, that’s almost never the candidates of the major parties, most of whom are odious concoctions of their own egos and the corrupting forces of money and ideology. But dependably, in campaign after campaign, a character sneaks on to the stage who captivates and highlights issues that otherwise would go unnoticed or under-examined.
Whether this candidate is a big-name iconoclast like New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg or a provocative outsider like Ron Paul — who, although wrong on plenty of issues, was dependably willing to challenge conventional wisdom — these folks liven up the debate. This year it took until the very end of the campaign to introduce 2012’s biggest truth-teller. Like Beyoncé and Cher, she is known by only one name. But few if any players in the current campaign are likely to have the same impact.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sandy.
Sandy, like many in an America with changing demographics, has overseas roots, hailing from the tropics. She rose to our attention in the south but ultimately, like so many others, she hit the big time in the northeast, and her political impact will extend well into the heartland of America, where this election will be decided. Like Joe Biden and Chris Christie, Sandy is an uncontrollable, wind-powered force of nature. Like many politicians, the first impression she may give the average voter is that she is all wet. But there is more to Sandy than meets her eye.
Sandy is a game-changer. For those of you who live far from the eastern shores of the United States, it is also worth noting that she is also a hurricane, a big one, currently cutting an 800-mile swath across one of the most heavily populated areas of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. And in so doing, she is speaking volumes about subjects many U.S. politicians have avoided and, at the same time, she is having a major impact on America’s process of electing a president.
To begin with, Sandy will do more to draw attention to issues of climate change than all the candidates running for every office in the United States during this election cycle have done. While it’s impossible to attribute her size or impact to man-made origins, it is also impossible not to wonder whether the recent frequency of large storms is related to the growing oceans of data about the reality of global warming. Sandy looks like what climate scientists have been warning about for years.
Remember Hurricane Katrina? She may or may not have been triggered by man-made climate change. But she certainly forced climate back into the national discussion for an extended period. Sandy will do likewise. Certainly, given the sad virtual silence about the issue from our presidential contenders — which amounts to nothing less than a planet-wide risk of the first order — Sandy’s intervention in this regard is welcome, if hugely and tragically costly.
Next, Sandy will also remind Americans and the world of the foolishness of some recent U.S. fetishes. I live in Washington, D.C., ostensibly the nerve center of the U.S. national security apparatus and target No. 1 for anyone interested in attacking America. The city is surrounded by military facilities and is home to a Department of Homeland Security that spends billions of dollars seeking to protect America against disruption. Yet this storm, like virtually all others of any size, will almost certainly knock out power to many of our nation’s leaders and the infrastructure on which our government depends for days. The city has already been brought to a standstill. Could burying power lines and strengthening critical infrastructure prevent all that? Of course. But is it as sexy as buying more drones, water boards, and stealth helicopters? Nope.
So says Sandy, "Go ahead and protect yourself against low-risk threats. I want to remind you how vulnerable you are to the more predictable, commonplace variety."
Sandy also will batter the other elements of the region’s infrastructure, in which America has failed to invest for the past half century or so. She will destroy weakened roadways and bridges and breakwaters. She will lash ancient port facilities. She will paralyze an air-traffic control system and railway systems that lag behind the world in their use of modern technologies. She will say, "Why aren’t you spending your precious resources to protect your people and your economy? Why are you frittering away money building roads and airfields on the other side of the world when you should be taking care of business at home?"
She will also, of course, be the first figure on the national stage to do something about the scourge of obscenely over-financed campaigns. Instead of merely complaining about them, she will pull the plug on them by turning off power to millions. While sitting in darkness may be a hardship, enjoying a break from campaign ads (and Twitter and Internet snark and faux-analysis and political hyperventilation) will be seen by many as a welcome break.
Admittedly, this service comes at the high cost of making columns like this one unavailable to readers. But that seems small price to pay.
Finally, of course, Sandy really will have a political impact. We are not sure what it will be. There seems to be a kind of strangely otherworldly dimension to a giant storm that batters primarily blue states and involves the rare combination of circumstances that can send the impact of a hurricane into battleground territory like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Not only will ads be off the air, but early voting is being cancelled and some of the lingering impacts of power losses and infrastructure damage will certainly take a toll on voter turnout. Indeed, as it happens, Sandy may be that rarest of political actors — one who reveals big truths and quite possibly has a lasting impact on world affairs. Because if, as seems likely, the U.S. presidential election is so close that any one big thing might shift the delicate balance, Sandy just might be the one to do it.