After two presidential and one vice-presidential debates, we have heard a lot about Libya but nothing about foreclosures. The federal budget deficit has been a major topic while talk about overcrowded classrooms, a sagging public works infrastructure, homelessness, and labor unions is off-limits. While energy policy has been frequently discussed, there has yet to be a single question about environmental protection and/or the public health impacts of the “drill, baby, drill” agenda. And for those who believe that the Occupy Movement made “inequality” part of the national debate, that’s another topic that has yet to be addressed .The disconnect between what people and activists are addressing on a daily basis and the problems raised in these debates is striking, and shows how elite, Beltway-driven opinion still drives American politics.

This week’s Town Hall debate discussed comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, and women’s rights, all of which had been entirely ignored in prior debates run by reporters. But I find it hard to believe that none of the “undecided” voters in attendance had a housing problem, or was not personally impacted by a public works infrastructure in need of repair.

These and other topics of great importance to millions of Americans have not been included in the debates. They have been supplanted by issues of primary concern to the Beltway elite, who don’t even know people facing foreclosure or homelessness and whose own lives are very different from most Americans.

Ignoring the Environment

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the three debates have completely ignored climate change and environmental protection. President Obama frequently talks about green jobs and alternative energy, but we have heard nothing about air or water pollution, conservation, or sustainable agriculture. The only time the phrase “public lands” came up is when Obama discussed oil drilling on these sites. Romney extolled the environmentally destructive Keystone XL pipeline while Obama noted his opposition without identifying its environmental risks.

Climate change may be the most critical issue of our time, yet elite Beltway interests find it far less important than the blame game over Libya. How can the United States convince the rest of the world that it is serious about addressing climate change when it is not even discussed in its presidential debates?

This is certainly not the first election in which environmental issues were largely ignored, but their complete disappearance from the debates in a year with record global warming---and with drastic weather shifts in the U.S.--- speaks volumes about elite media interests.

What Happened to Inequality?

After the Occupy Movement forced the issue of growing economic inequality into the national conversation, elite interests have ensured that the issue is ignored in the presidential debates. No question has addressed the issue, and the candidates have not been asked to explain their plans for reducing inequality.

President Obama talks about policies to help the middle-class rather than the elite, and has noted that the country is better when those in the middle do well. Romney has not even sought to address rising inequality, though his answer is predictable: it would be resolved through his Five Point Plan.

There is a difference between slightly raising taxes on those earning over $250,000 and meaningfully addressing economic and social inequality in the United States. And while President Obama should not be expected to openly promote the redistribution of wealth during his re-election campaign, the fact that economic inequality is not even being discussed in the most watched national conversations shows how elite media interests continue to avoid the issue.

It is no coincidence that when the debates tackle such non-elite driven topics as immigration reform, gun control, and women’s rights, the divisions between the candidates and their parties becomes most clear. And Romney and the Republican Party’s extreme positions become most exposed.

While the Internet and social media have opened up a world of important issues this campaign season, when it comes to the national debates the traditional “mainstream” media agenda still dominates. Thank goodness we have twitter for up to the minute online commentary and do not have to rely on the traditional media for their conventional post-debate spin.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.