Whatever you thought of last night’s chaotic “debate” between President Trump and Joe Biden, the event offered no reason to think that the Nov. 3 election will be an orderly affair that cleanly selects a president and lays the groundwork for a new administration to take charge of the nation. Sadly, that low bar of precedent that has prevailed for most of the country’s history on this front appears headed for something decidedly abnormal.
One presidential debate is hardly a forecast of what’s to come–or is it? In this season of extreme political and economic discontent, you can learn a lot by watching the two men vying for the presidency. Unfortunately, the implications are grim.
“This will go down as the worst debate of all time,” tweets Politico journalist Anna Palmer – a sentiment widely shared by nearly everyone who watched this calamity.
The Hill’s Niall Stanage sums up the night accurately, lamenting: “Overall, it was an encounter, just five weeks from Election Day, that seemed incongruously small and unbefitting for a nation facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, widespread economic struggles and tensions over racial injustice.”
The encounter between the two men was so disordered that it prompted speculation that the remaining scheduled debates – two with Trump and Biden and another between Vice President Mike Pence Kamala Harris – will be, or at least should be cancelled. “A tidal wave from the mainstream media is speculating whether the two remaining debates between President Trump and Joe Biden should even be held after their brutal first showdown Tuesday night in Cleveland,” according to Fox News.
As a commentator at FiveThirtyEight.com opines, “The standard debate format has outlived its usefulness, at least for a while.”
Regardless of how last night’s circus influences the institution of formal political discussion, it’s clear that America’s soft power took another blow. Even if you’ve been minimizing (or dismissing) the warning signs in recent years, last night offered little reason to think that US influence and prestige, at home or abroad, was strengthened. Rather, the world’s leading democracy is stumbling… hard.
“Politics needs a reference point outside of politics,” says Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University Moshe Halbertal. “It needs values, it needs facts and it needs leaders who respect that there is a sacred domain of decisions that will never be used to promote political gain, only the common good.”
All this would be a temporary glitch if “normal” political and economic conditions were in play. But as recent history reminds, the usual routine has become ancient history.
The US isn’t alone in navigating treacherous political waters and increasingly challenging economic conditions, but nowhere is the chaos more extreme in the developed world.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that for all the light and heat of last night’s rhetorical slugfest, there are real issues to discuss, dissect and – yes – debate and allowing them to fester allows various risks to rise, potentially with devastating consequences. Unfortunately, there was almost nothing of practical value dispensed on Tuesday night. Television is hardly the ideal medium for investigating the finer points of policy — much less defining the qualities that determine a nation’s destiny. But even by the low standard of TV’s legacy, last night’s discussion was a disaster.
The good news, if it can be called that, is that most viewers probably already had a clear idea of the candidates’ broad positions ahead of the event. But if anyone learned anything of substance in the 90 minutes of chaos, it was in despite of tuning in.
For anyone who’s been paying attention, the decline and fall of the body politic in America has been painfully on display for much of the past four years. The only question: At what price?
The answer will unfold in the years ahead, on multiple fronts and in myriad ways. There may be no tipping-point moment, although the upcoming election could be close.
Debates don’t determine the technical clockwork of how elections function, at least that was true in the past. But as a reflection of intent and tenor, the Trump-Biden show is revealing in the extreme by warning that Nov. 3 threatens to be unprecedented for all the wrong reasons.
“It was a grim reminder,” This Week’s Matthew Walther grieved, “that there is nothing amusing about the slow but almost certainly inexorable decline of the United States into a senile gerontocracy whose basic organizing principles are numbers going up on a computer screen somewhere and mindless entertainment.”
If that is an overly pessimistic interpretation of Tuesday’s debacle, the burden is still on the optimists to explain the case for anticipating an encouraging path ahead.
“It’s a republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin reportedly said after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Last night suggests the grip is slipping.
The future will be determined by many events to come, only some of which can be managed through political means. But if there a promising road ahead the opportunity for productively resetting America’s trajectory through Washington’s levers, that opportunity is receding at an accelerating rate as the nation battles against what might be called the second law of political thermodynamics.