Author’s note: even before Trump won, it was clear that America was damaged and in trouble, that certain trends that had exploded during the 2016 election cycle were terrible indicators of where we were as a nation even if Trump were to lose in November.
The run-up to the the second Trump-Clinton debate, the debate itself, and the debate’s aftermath expose the simple truth that our democracy is failing: the appalling spectacle was anything but a debate, and our society is currently incapable of producing a substantive debate or a substantive election because far too many voters abhor substance and seriousness. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s a large portion of the American electorate, among other things.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse October 11, 2016
AP / John Locher
AMMAN — As I am forcing myself to write this, my mind, body, and what’s left of my soul is reeling from this campaign, and, in particular, the transpirings of and since this weekend, including the second debate between Clinton and Trump and its aftermath, and not just because I live in the Middle East and the debate started at 4AM my time.
There is so much that is deplorable in this election cycle that we could start from the very beginning, with Ted Cruz being the first major candidate to announce back on March 23rd, 2015, over a year-and-a-half ago. But I don’t have the heart to inflict more discussions of Ted Cruz on my audience after what I just witnessed this weekend. So, for simplicity’s sake, let’s start with this weekend.
What exactly happened?
Well, just days before the second general-election presidential debate between Clinton and Trump—given where the race is now, the most important debate in modern American history thus far in the most important election in modern American history—pretty much all that was discussed before the debate was a recording from 2005 of Trump, unaware that he was being recorded, talking about his sexual exploits with women that involved him bragging about extremely aggressive sexual behavior that he said he could get away with because he was famous, a conversation that included both language and discussion of behaviors that many found quite offensive. This burned out all the public discourse oxygen from late Friday though most of Sunday. Then, on Sunday night, Trump trotted out four women at a press conference just before the debate: two who have accused Bill Clinton of unwanted sexual advances, one who has accused him of rape, and one who as a twelve-year-old girl has accused of rape a man whom Hillary Clinton represented as a court-appointed public defender in the related trial and for whom she won a reduced sentence.
As for said debate, the moderators right away led with questions about the sex-talk scandal, and in response Trump opened it up with meandering mentions of a number of past Clinton scandals. Clinton spent much of the debate responding to Trump’s attacks and insults, including much talk about her tired, over-covered e-mail scandal. Trump basically threatened to jail her if he won. I won’t blame the moderators for the way all this transpired, but the format basically allotted two minutes for answers and the moderators were strict in trying to cut off candidates rather than open up a deeper discussion, with both candidates frequently deflecting tough questions (Trump more so, of course), and attempts by the moderators to make them answer when they didn’t want to were for naught (not sure how they could force answers). In the end, despite some discussion of policy, most of the second debate involved bickering, insults, discussion of scandals already oversaturated with media coverage, and Trump arguing with the moderators, and even when there was actual discussion of policy, it was not terribly deep. With so much at stake, this is what our system—our society, our people, our media, our political parties, our candidates—produced with an unprecedented election a month away. No truly in-depth discussion of education, poverty, taxation, the budget, race-relations, or jobs occurred, even if such topics were lightly touched upon.
The news cycles after the debate focused and continue to focus on the insults and personal attacks at the debate, Trump’s sexual recording scandal, Bill Clinton’s past sex scandals, the candidates’ demeanor and body language, America’s new favorite undecided voter named Kenneth Bone and his sweater, anything but the issues. For most Americans, then, this debate was one of the only chances to hear Trump or Clinton explain what they would try to do as president in detail with at least some force holding them accountable in real time; that did not happen.
Why Is This Happening?
Hillary Clinton is quite capable of talking at length about at number of substantive issues, but a majority of voters seem to respond to such talk with revulsion, boredom, and by not voting for whomever emits such talk. Add both the media’s and the public’s focus on scandals and, of course, Donald Trump into the mix, and it’s almost impossible to have any kind of a substantive discussion about anything, even if you replaced Hillary Clinton with Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking; even though one party has chosen a serious person of substance, the overall tone has been set by the lowest behavior of the non-serious and non-substantive, chosen by non-serious and non-substantive voters: essentially, roughly half the voters are dragging the other half down with them and has reset the political arena to match their own ridiculousness despite the maturity of the other half; the food fight on the debate stage turns said debate into a food fight by default.
That, dear readers, is what should terrify all of us: this is no way to conduct a campaign, a debate, an election, a democracy. Because without a doubt, the function of a political debate must be to give candidates who can demonstrate expertise and realistic plans on substantive issues of concern to American citizens the chance to do so while simultaneously exposing candidates who cannot not do so as being clearly unable to do so. And yet, so much about the current setup makes either action close to impossible to any meaningful extent (with the exception to some degree of the Democratic primary debates, in which Clinton’s depth shone through and found millions of more voters support and Sander’ naïve, shallow idealism fell flat for a strong majority of Democrats). But even worse is that in 2016, it seems anywhere from one-third to half of voters would not base their votes on a substance and reason even if the debates functioned the way they should. Yes, the media is certainly part of the problem, but as part of market-driven forces, news outlets are forced to a large extent to give consumers what they want. Newspapers that try to be substantive and in-depth are losing readers and money to less objective and less accurate bloggers and extremist cocooning outlets. The real problem is the American people: an increasing number are turning away from substance, whether it’s their politicians or their news. Many of the same dynamics that explain the rise of Trump and the Tea Party phenomena explain the rising popularity of Breitbart and Druge, basically right-wing media 3.0 after talk-radio (1.0) and Fox News (2.0).
In other words, even when it comes to the most important debate thus far in the most important election in modern American history, our system and our society—our people most of all—are not capable of having a substantive discussion and an informed weighing of issues and candidates. Thus, we get a debate is hardly a debate at all but becomes more about performance art and driving headlines and news cycles. No matter who wins, what has gone down this election cycle is a serious wound in our body politic that has it in critical condition, and Trump is a significant symptom but is not the disease itself, which is the mentality of a huge number of American voters who voted for this and got what they voted for.
This Living Nightmare Is Awful, But Not Hopeless
As this nightmarish and nightmarishly long election cycle winds down to its final, most awful phase, leaders of both parties need to figure out how to come together to promote people of reason, stature, seriousness, and depth, and to find ways to actually be leaders, to lead the American people in spite of Americans’ baser desires, to push the public to value substance over style, to do more than simply what an angry mob craves and wants by finding ways to elevate enough of us to save us and our country from ourselves, rather than simply be tools of self-destruction who are chosen democratically but are but tools of self-destruction nonetheless. As of now, I wouldn’t bet on this happening anytime soon, and if Republicans hold onto the House, we are likely to see extreme partisanship and gridlock on the domestic front even if Clinton wins; and yet, if Clinton is able to win and come into office with a Democratic House (I’m doubtful) and Senate (looking good), there is a chance that we can lead the country into a new, better era, one in which results will be achieved and in which results will trump the noise and propaganda and create a new, strong, and progressive majority that will pick up even some skeptics when it delivers these substantive results. Because it this doesn’t happen, I am not sure how long or how well our system can survive continuing like it has these past few years, and especially this election year. That hope—that opportunity—is worth fighting for.
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