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The 2020 Election: On the Aesthetics of a Debate

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Kennedy and Nixon just before the first televised presidential debate, Chicago, 1960. (Source: Public Domain)

Last week, the second Democratic primary debate (or the fourth, depending on how you’re counting) concluded in expectedly anticlimactic fashion, with the roster of ten underwhelming candidates (the two best having already debated the previous night) delivering their minute-long and platitude-heavy closing statements, while Joe Biden capped the night’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime with a gem of a sound bite that only a baby boomer could have managed (somehow, he mixed up his website with his text message code, not really a good sign given that his campaign is centered on firmly distinguishing himself from the erratic and senile Donald Trump). Yet afterwards, the punditry of CNN, which moderated the debate, as well as other media outlets (namely those with similarly centrist ideological leanings) declared, for some reason, that Joe Biden won the debate. It was the kind of analysis that leads one to wonder whether they even watched the debate their network had just moderated, or whether they had this narrative prewritten and were now trying to force it onto an unwitting American audience.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no universe in which Joe Biden won that debate. He came across as a befuddled and bumbling old man (so much so that he made Robert Mueller, who recently delivered his underwhelming testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, seem youthful by comparison), clearly making up most of his speeches on the fly, repeating himself, mixing up his opponents (he referred at one point to Cory Booker as the President), and often abruptly cutting himself off mid-sentence. Yet CNN’s Chris Cillizza described him as “active, energetic and forceful” and declared that he “wound up doing *just* enough to quiet — if not silence — questions about whether he is up to the job” (Oh, what a standard to hold our presidential candidates to!). Vox, meanwhile, had similarly subterranean expectations, arguing that “Biden just needed to come across better than he did last time” (which I guess he technically did, only because his performance last time was even worse).

Now, obviously, most of these media outlets would love nothing more than for Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee. Most of the anchors at places like CNN and MSNBC make millions of dollars and clearly fear the potential of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren presidency, both of which would not only raise their taxes but also dismantle the system that gave them such power (Chris Matthews, after all, was so worried about a potential tax increase that he wouldn’t even let Elizabeth Warren finish a sentence). Biden, by contrast represents a pre-Trump, neoliberal status quo, and he would guarantee many of the millionaire pundits continued financial success and societal influence.

But more than that, for many of these people — not just the anchors at CNN and MSNBC or the writers at Vox but also all their upper-middle class, centrist-liberal viewers and readers — Biden is more importantly an aesthetically comfortable choice. Beyond all ideology, he presents as a simple, reassuring figure, someone who’s nice, who smiles a lot, who has a seemingly-natural sense of humor, and who, when he does get angry, doesn’t do so in a way that’s too aggressive or off-putting (unlike the other old guy from the previous night). After all, Biden’s signature lines, which he repeats at the beginning of almost every one of his speeches, are “look” and “the fact is” — the former a faux-folksy way of seemingly cutting past any rhetorical bullshit and telling things like they are, the latter a way of calling attention to the reality and truth of a situation. And in a world of post-truth and post-fact, where internet trolls can make a conspiracy trend on Twitter overnight and most liberals are convinced that Trump’s victory in 2016 was a vast Russian conspiracy involving “kompromat” and “dezinformatsiya,” how can a phrase like “the fact is” not be music to certain ears, a reassurance that we’re back in the realm of truth, that this gentle old man will take us back to the age of Obama? It doesn’t even matter what Biden says after “the fact is” — rhetorically and aesthetically, he’s already won these viewers’ hearts.

And so, determining a “winner” after a debate isn’t really an objective decision but more a reflection of the aesthetics one values. For many pundits, Bernie Sanders was too angry and loud, and his shouting and arm waving came across as ill-mannered and uncivil, especially when compared to Elizabeth Warren. But to many on the internet (like everyone making fun of this guy), and to many millennials my age, Bernie’s anger is precisely why we like him — we’ve grown up with politicians who act civil when giving speeches and then turn around and bomb the hell out of the Middle East. To us, Bernie’s anger cuts through the nihilistic malaise of our post-truth era far more effectively than Joe Biden’s rhetorical bromides. When Bernie rails in his loud voice and with his wild hand gestures against the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry and the fossil fuel industry and the military industrial complex, he’s speaking on an aesthetic level to millennials like me — many of us struggle with the absurdity of health insurance premiums and the dismal prospect of ever achieving the standard of living of our parents, and almost all of us are terrified at the thought that when we’re forty-five (and finally can afford a down payment on a house), the planet’s climate might be irreversibly damaged. Against realities like that, how can one not yell like Bernie? And so, his aesthetic appeals to us in a way that the other candidates’ more measured approaches don’t (case in point is Tim Ryan, whose attempt to capitalize on “You don’t have to yell” somehow failed to win over the internet).

Beyond the debates, I think aesthetics will ultimately matter more when people select their candidate than ideology. I know several older people who really like Pete Buttigieg, not because of anything he says he’ll do when he’s president (his campaign, after all, has been mostly empty of real substance), but simply because of how he presents himself, as the smart and serious alternative to Donald Trump (as I’ve suggested before, I think the reason the core of Buttigieg’s support comes from baby boomers is that they see him as the son they wish they had, his naval intelligence and McKinsey experience a thorough contrast to the average avocado-toast eating millennial). Similarly, I have several friends who are on the left but can’t bring themselves to support Bernie Sanders, not because they disagree with any of his policies but simply because they find him too rude and unpolished — whereas Elizabeth Warren, though she may be less radical, has the polite, civil, professional, wonkish exterior that they expect of a president. I don’t ultimately fault these friends (even though I do think they should support Bernie over Warren, for reasons that I’ll probably get into in a future post) because I recognize that aesthetics ultimately matters more in politics than ideology ever will, even if in an ideal world, people would make decisions based on the latter rather than the former. After all, even though I support Bernie because I’ve been a socialist since college, when I first read Marx and finally understood the awful role capitalism has played throughout world history, and also because he supports policies like universal health care, free college, and others that will substantially improve the lives of people I know and love as well as millions more across the country and the world, I also recognize that there’s a bit of aesthetics in my support for Bernie too — a slightly disheveled man with glasses like mine who is actually going to tell it like it is, even if that means people think he’s angry. After a series of polished men in suits who spoke with perfected obfuscation while they destroyed our world, I think America could use a president like that.

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Debut novel PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (2019, 7.13 Books). Writes about politics and literature.

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