There have been some dire political debates of late, but Tuesday night’s US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden takes the biscuit.
What is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Social media, low attention spans, dumbed-down culture or anti-intellectualism… or do politicians simply believe that the average man on the street is too stupid to understand the issues affecting the world in 2020 and would, in fact, prefer a WWE-style shouting match? Depressingly, the answer might well be ‘all of the above’.
“Liar!” “Clown!” “Shut up!” One thing is for sure, if the Trump-Biden debate was a DVD, it would belong in the dollar bin. Much of the blame for this (and the general lowering of the tone of political discourse over the last handful of years) must be shouldered by Donald Trump, who is quite unlike any previous occupant of the Oval Office.
Interrupted 128 times
True to form, on Tuesday night he harangued and berated his opponent, interrupting Joe Biden 128 times over the course of the 90-minute so-called debate.
In the aftermath of the debacle, two questions come to mind. Is Trump just playing a part and is this impoverishment of the public discourse unique to the US? While we can’t know the first for certain, the second is plainly no longer true.
In the social media age, where the traditional media more than ever deals in easily digestible soundbites and punchlines, the level of public discourse has unquestionably degraded. This has forced politicians to adapt their vocabulary and way of speaking.
"In the social media age, where the traditional media more than ever deals in easily digestible soundbites and punchlines, the level of public discourse has unquestionably degraded"
A windfall for populists, who claim they are ‘telling it like it is’ or ‘just saying out loud what everyone is thinking’, the new landscape has put traditional ‘politically correct’ politicians on the back foot. To have a chance of getting their message across, they must first, it seems, sling some mud. Tuesday night showed that getting to the battle of ideas stage might not even happen and that, many suspect, was precisely the president’s goal.
The gloves are off
We are not in Kansas anymore, where Ronald Regan debated Walter Mondale in 1984, and even the duel between Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney 8 years ago seems to belong to a bygone age. Now, we have Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn trading personal attacks, and Emanuel Macron and Marine le Pen dealing below-the-belt insinuations.
Macron’s jibe about his rival needing to consult a folder during the live presidential election debate in 2017, all but calling her ‘stupid’, landed a more effective and, crucially, memorable blow than any eloquent speech about his own ideals. Now we get bombastic, boorish back-biting from leaders like Jair Bolsonaro or Matteo Salvini at the merest hint of criticism.
And yet, from a certain perspective, embracing lowest-common-denominator public discourse is the fault of the entire political class which has, for some time now, preferred to make emotional arguments than those based on reason. It is as though they don’t trust the electorate to be able to listen to the case why they should lead the country and instead feel the way to win is to land more punches than the opponent. True or not, the way our politicians debate one another has changed, probably forever.
The situation recalls George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where sheep are an allegory for the duped, unthinking masses and pigs the political leadership. In the novel, the latter teaches the former the maxim: “Four legs good, two legs bad,” which they take to heart and repeat all the time. In the book the sheep are stupid, but in the real world in 2020 is the general public, really? The best way to find out would be to have a reasoned debate between candidates on position, policy and long-term strategy and see if that moves the needle right or left. But in 2020, there is about as much chance of that happening as pigs flying.