Opinion | Not the debate we needed, but the debate we deserved


My plans to leave my house Saturday after dark having been foiled by the ungodly cold, I decided to watch the umpteenth GOP Primary debate, almost certainly against my own wiser instincts.

The morning after, as is so often the case with questionable judgement calls made hastily on a Saturday night, I found myself inclined to ruminate on the prior evening’s happenings with bitterness. I’m no seasoned political pundit, and so hesitate to add my voice to the cacophony of post-debate analysis, but I did have a thought which I haven’t so far seen expressed in any of the usual internet repositories of gripe and wonkery.

First and foremost, the debate was a statement on the sad and worrying condition of the American polity and its discourse. Despite an earnest attempt by lead moderator John Dickerson, the debate was largely characterized by interpersonal vitriol more reminiscent of an over-produced reality cable show than a good-faith contest of political ideologies. The jeering audience played shamefully along, booing and goading and shouting along like the bloodthirsty crowd at a Roman spectacle. 

It would be easy to blame this gutter-brawl squarely on 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump, whose very presence, with its accompanying bombast and mudslinging, certainly serves to lower the level of debate. It’s worth remembering, however, that what Trump really is is a master marketer. As such, he’s reactive, not proactive; his skill and his success lie, as in all marketing, in giving us what we already want, whether that’s a racial outlet for frustrated socio-economic aspirations or a debate which sounds like an episode of "The Real Housewives."

In living memory, the widespread presence of this latter buried desire for ugliness seems somewhat novel. Perhaps I romanticize, but my sense is that in times not too long past, voters — particularly traditionalist conservative ones — would have punished candidates for the type of unseemly behavior displayed on stage last night. As recently as many of our parents’ college years, for one politician to publicly call another a liar outright carried great weight. That same accusation is, to this day on the other side of the Atlantic, considered sufficiently indecorous that its leveling by a Member of Parliament is grounds for immediate expulsion from the House of Commons. 

And yet, tonight, audiences cheered as men who might plausibly be the next global face of the United States shouted “liar” at one another with ever-increasing venom and volume. And that we, the polity, do not merely tolerate such behavior, but reward it reflects as badly on us at it does on them. The last time the general tone of mainstream national politics was so uncivil, our nation was on the brink of a civil war. 

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