America has had elections where questions of war and peace were definitional. That was certainly true in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson campaigned and won on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” It was very much the case in the 1968 and 1972 Democratic presidential primaries, when peace candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern disrupted the status quo with campaigns that objected to the Vietnam War. And as recently as the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats channeled frustration with the ongoing Iraq War into major victories in the fight for control of Congress.
But often, when the most significant questions of war and peace should be up for discussion, they are neglected.
That’s been the case so far this year, as 2022 midterm races have been focused almost entirely on domestic issues. Amid the lingering challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and with inflation unsettling the economy and abortion bans spreading across the country, that’s understandable. But neglecting issues of war and peace doesn’t make them go away.
The fact is that the question of war or peace is on the ballot this year, whether or not most politicians and the media choose to pay attention to the very real threats that exist.
The brutal Russian assault on Ukraine continues, with signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin is growing ever more desperate. Tensions in countries that neighbor Russia and Ukraine have contributed to a reshaping of the European order, as nations that had once resisted joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are now rushing to do so.
Just last week, as the fight in Ukraine seemed to be turning against the Russians, Putin said that the military forces he controls, which have stockpiles of nuclear weapons, “will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us.” “This is not a bluff!” added the Russian leader. President Biden responded with a declaration that “America is fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory, every single inch. So Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Every inch.”
In short order, The New York Times reported that US officials “are gaming out responses should Russia resort to battlefield nuclear weapons”—a line eerily reminiscent of the Cold War era.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced at the start of 2022 that the Doomsday Clock, which “warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” was set at “100 seconds to midnight.” In March, the bulletin reiterated that Russian’s invasion of Ukraine “has brought this nightmare scenario to life, with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to elevate nuclear alert levels and even first use of nuclear weapons if NATO steps in to help Ukraine. This is what 100 seconds to midnight looks like.”
If all of this isn’t unsettling enough, tensions between the United States and another nuclear power, China, over the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty are as intense as at any time since the days before President Nixon traveled to Beijing in 1972.
Rarely in recent American history has there been a moment that spotlights so many vital, and immediate, questions for congressional candidates to answer about foreign policy, disarmament, diplomacy, and Pentagon priorities. The easy response is to simply increase military spending. But that’s not necessarily the smart response.
“This is a time where we need leaders who will think before they act, and who support aggressive diplomacy to lessen tensions around the world,” says Representative Ro Khanna, the California Democrat who has emerged as one of the most ardent advocates for new approaches to foreign policy. “We need leaders who will stand up for our national security and support a strong 21st-century defense while resisting the temptation to line the pockets of defense contractors with money that is not used to make us safer.”
Unfortunately, as the group Peace Action notes, “Too often, foreign policy takes a back seat in congressional elections.”
That’s certainly the case as the 2022 midterms approach.
This isn’t a simple matter of Democrats versus Republicans, or conservatives versus liberals. There are plenty of Democrats who get these issues wrong, and plenty of liberals who neglect the debates that should be taking place. There are plenty of candidates on every side who lack vision or courage. A big part of the problem is with the media, which is ever more rigidly focused on domestic policy debates in general, and on the latest misdeeds of Donald Trump in particular. It is important to keep an eye on Trump and his right-wing nationalist allies. But doing so to the exclusion of all other issues, especially issues of war and peace, is a mistake—one that could ultimately cost American lives and treasure.
Yet, by every evidence, it is a mistake that most media outlets are making.
Peace Action and a handful of other groups are doing their best to keep foreign policy on the table, and there are a few candidates who have stepped up with agendas that recognize what’s at stake. Many of them are veteran critics of the military-industrial complex, such as Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), cofounders of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus. And several of the progressive candidates who won critical Democratic primaries this year get it.
A standout is Delia Ramirez, the Democratic nominee for an open US House seat in Chicago. Her campaign announces:
As a member of the United Methodist Church, Delia upholds the calling to “prioritize collaboration among nations, work to reduce the use and need for weapons, and foster just, equitable and durable solutions to the root causes of conflict.”
Delia is ready to be a Congresswoman who advocates for a responsible, tempered, and informed approach to foreign policy. She believes war should only ever be undertaken when all diplomatic options have failed and the cost of not acting would produce great harm to human lives and human rights. She will advocate for Congress to reassert its Constitutional right to declare war because the American people deserve to have their elected members of Congress debate the merits of military intervention.
Ramirez understands that peace is on the ballot this fall. But we could use a lot more candidates like her. And we could use a media that asks essential questions about diplomacy, disarmament, and military spending.
While it is important to debate domestic policy, Mark Pocan reminds us that “equally important this fall is that we elect people who will keep this nation safe without having to enrich defense contractors and cost lives both among US citizens and others abroad.”