Lessons from 2012

Certainly, 2012 felt like an extremely long year.

Perhaps this is because of the length of the campaign “season,” which now lasts nearly two years—which leads us immediately to the first thing we’ve learned from 2012: It’s insane for a nation with the kind of structural problems the United States faces to spend $2 billion electing a president.

And that’s not even the whole cost. It doesn’t include spending by political action committees and super PACs on state and congressional races, nor spending on local races or ballot measures. In fact, that figure doesn’t even include primary spending. USA Today estimated a total expenditure of nearly $6 billion—yeah, that’s $6 billion—on the 2012 elections.

We cannot continue to consider ourselves a representative democracy when the guy with the biggest bank account gets to decide who runs and what he or she talks about. If you think that elected officials—who are almost always running for something—aren’t influenced by campaign donations, well, we’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn for you. It’s well past time for serious campaign-finance reform.

While we’re at it: If we haven’t learned from this past year that we need to limit the campaign “season” to something more reasonable—say, a three-month time span—and put the brakes on campaign advertising and robocalls, then we weren’t paying attention.

There’s also an issue with the mess some voters faced on Election Day. Pre-election voter “purges,” states with voter-ID laws, electronic voting machines that didn’t work, messed up or limited early voting, and problems with voter challenges were evident all over the country. We’ve got to push the Federal Elections Commission and Congress to work with the Department of Justice and set clear, simple and fair national guidelines for how elections will be conducted. First and foremost, we need a truly nonpartisan election system; any partisan elected official will be at the very least tempted to favor an election process that gives his or her own party the edge—and that’s not the way our elections should be run.

So, lesson the first from 2012: Fix the U.S. election system.

The second big lesson of the year? That “global climate change” or “global warming” might be too tepid a pair of terms to use for what’s happening to our planet. Instead, we’re starting to see a new description: “global climate chaos.”

Not only did the entire nation experience longer periods of high temperatures this year, but Sacramento had the warmest September on record. Drought brought hardship to farmers in Iowa and it continues to plague Texas, while the Waldo Canyon “superfire” in Colorado last summer was just the latest such phenomenon, not the last.

And let’s not forget Hurricane Sandy, which might have been a bad storm even without the warmer ocean temperatures that made it possible for its development into a superstorm.

In short, as several major reports indicated this year, we’ve run out of time to stop global climate change. The question now is what we’ll do about mitigating it.

And that is the third big lesson from 2012: It’s time to stop fiddling while the planet burns.