Opinion | Whatever happened to the old-fashioned American debate?

Americans deserve more from their leaders than petty squabbles.

Courtesy+of+Nikolas+Liepins+%2F+ACP

Courtesy of Nikolas Liepins / ACP

If the first presidential debate of 2020 had appeared in a movie as a metaphor for the dwindling hopes of the American voter, critics would have said it was too on the nose. 

I have always been a fan of debates. I like to watch two people have an intelligent conversation, arguing different ideologies and trying to convince the other that their own position is the more logical. But it turns out that they just don’t make them like they used to.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden behaved like children arguing over who ate the last ice cream cone while their long-suffering parent, moderator Chris Wallace, tried in vain to stop them. Perhaps the worst part is that the debate’s quick descent into madness caught me by surprise. For the first two minutes, I was hopeful, as the two candidates seemed to be polite to one another.  But nothing gold can stay. As soon as the bell rang and the first question was asked, the brawl began.

The debate would have surely made excellent fodder for a “Real Housewives” reunion, but as the culmination of an election cycle, it was mortifying.”

Both candidates threw muck and grime at one another while Americans mainly grew annoyed, according to one post-debate poll from CBS News.

President Trump would not condemn white supremacist groups and rather asked them to “stand by.” In a baffling display of even further deflection, he said that someone needed to do something about “antifa and the left.”

Biden refused to answer questions about whether he would expand the Supreme Court if Amy Coney Barrett were confirmed. Now that she is confirmed, the Biden camp still has not made a course of action public. An expansion would increase the size of the bench from nine justices, a number that has remained static since 1869.

Both candidates cited “facts” that were about as trustworthy as me telling you that I’m a flying pig in a human body. Some truth eventually found its way into the debate here and there, but only by sheer coincidence. 

When they ran out of steam attacking one another, they broadened their horizons by attacking each other’s families. You know, just to shake things up. While Biden took shots at the business and ethical decisions of Trump’s children, one of whom works for the White House directly. Trump attacked Biden’s son, who struggled with a drug dependency before recovering.

This is where I really grew tired of the debate. I had just watched a parade of logical fallacies, from red herrings to straw men, and I was exhausted. The debate would have surely made excellent fodder for a “Real Housewives” reunion, but as the culmination of an election cycle, it was mortifying. This debate, broadcast into the homes of so many Americans, should have been a triumph of democracy and communication. Instead, it felt like a death knell for the whole political system that has brought us to this point. 

The second presidential debate left me with less existential dread, but it still didn’t get rid of that sense of impending doom entirely. Candidates were blessedly muted to keep them from talking over each other, which meant the moderator could steer the conversation firmly in the direction of policy. That did not mean that either candidate gave up on sneaking in personal attacks or misinformation.

Trump claimed 2.2 million people were projected to die as part of the COVID-19 pandemic, though that figure was only a worst case scenario if 81% of the population became infected. Biden said the deficit with China has gone up when it has actually gone down.

Moral politics is possible, but it will require us, as a voting public, to raise our expectations. We can demand strong moral leaders, we just have to be serious about it.”

Trump said no president has done more for the Black community than him since Abraham Lincoln—essentially forgetting Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Biden said that under the Obama administration they released 38,000 prisoners, but only 19,000 were released with only 1,900 receiving pardons from the Obama administration. 

I hate that these are the two candidates we have to choose from as voters, and I personally don’t look forward to casting my ballot on Tuesday. I am tired of parties choosing to nominate someone they think can win instead of someone who deserves to be president.

People seem to think that morality and politics walk on opposite sides of the street. Moral politics is possible, but it will require us, as a voting public, to raise our expectations. We can demand strong moral leaders, we just have to be serious about it.

In an episode of “The West Wing, one character says: “I’m tired of it. Year after year, after year, after year. Having to choose between the lesser of who cares. Of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low I can hardly look at it.”

It’s a perfect encapsulation of how this election feels. 

The next words the character said were, “They say a good man can’t get elected president. I don’t believe that. Do you?” 

A good person can be elected president. But not until we demand it for ourselves.