Julián Castro and the Double Standard of Civility

Democratic candidates are toothless if they can’t disagree.

Photo by Daniel Sandvik on Unsplash

I will admit upfront that I did not watch the Democratic primary debate on Thursday (nor the two that preceded it); I’ve already decided on my first and second choice candidates, and unless both of them leave the race it’s unlikely that I’ll entertain voting for someone else. But I was surprised and frustrated by one of the prevailing media narratives following the debate. It involves my first choice candidate, Julián Castro, and the candidate I am perhaps least likely to vote for, Joe Biden.

“Disqualifying.”

This is the word many pundits used to describe Secretary Castro’s pointed call-out of Vice President Biden during a discussion on healthcare policy. Biden appeared to have flip-flopped on his own campaign’s postion mid-way through the debate, and Castro asked him if he had already forgotten what he’d said “two minutes ago.” He repeated himself, but not any more stridently than the typical candidate trying to force an opponent into answering a question. Watching to the video clip, I wasn’t struck by anything mean-spirited or personal in his tone, or anything out of the ordinary for presidential primary politics.

And yet, so many are insisting that Castro should drop out of the race immediately — that he disqualified himself by launching a “personal attack” while the rest of the candidates stayed civil.

Civility is just one of the ubiquitous buzz words this election season that seem to have been stripped of all meaningful definiton. There are two generally accepted arguments for why we need civility in the Democratic primary:

  • not stooping to the level of President Trump and his fellow Republicans
  • “unifying” for the sake of defeating Trump in the 2020 election

As for the first, I offer my previous post, “The Problem with Civility.”

I wrote then that, “The problem with civility is that it requires good intentions from all parties.” I have since come to realize yet another requirement: an equal balance of power.

Biden has already proven himself to be uncivil in the strictest sense of the word during his campaign so far: he’s pointed fingers, yelled at voters, and invaded their phyiscal space. This isn’t even to mention the blatant racism and sexism he’s spewed during his frequent “gaffes,” a cop-out descriptor from the political media intent on coddling Biden. I’ve seen plenty of criticism for this kind of personal incivility from fellow voters, but the media has largely given him a pass. Because he is a powerful white man — the front runner! — and of course, of course, we must think about his “intentions.”

Candidates like Secretary Castro who are people of color aren’t given that benefit of the doubt. They are painted as “angry,” “explosive,” “badgering,” “mean.” Though Castro raised his voice to be heard, he didn’t shout by any means, not the way Biden and Bernie Sanders often do. It’s hard not to see the strain of racism in criticism of Castro’s speech, and it’s frustrating to see presidential politics continue to get bogged down in tone-policing and “personal attack” narratives at the expense of actual policy discussion. See also: female candidates and “electability.”

It has also been suggested that Castro was being ageist by questioning Biden’s memory during the debate. If he had levied the same remarks at Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as well, there might be some truth to it. But it seems perfectly reasonable to ask if Biden is fit for office; regardless of his age, we need a president who is clear-minded and ready to take on the challenges of modern American governance. With all the recent concern that President Trump is going senile and making costly foreign and economic policy decisions as a result, shouldn’t we be wary of electing another such mentally unfit candidate? If Warren or Sanders started to display similarly troubling patterns of behavior, we would have to question their fitness, too.

That leaves us with the idea that the primary race needs to stay civil in order to keep the party united. Again, I think we’re operating under a contorted definition of civility. I don’t want a debate stage full of candidates afraid to passionately defend their policy proposals and criticize those of their opponents. I do want candidates who respect each other, in so far as they have earned each other’s respect. The candidates who have done the work the build a strong campaign team, advance progressive policy agendas, and prioritized the needs of the people are the candidates I am excited to see in the race. The candidates who fail to uphold even the basic principles of the modern Democratic party and lack a progressive agenda do not deserve that respect.

We know that the candidates have policy differences; if the debates are going to serve any meaningful purpose, they must serve as a space for the candidates to hash out those differences and let voters decide which direction the party should go. If we are truly concerned about putting forth the strongest candidate to face Trump, we should not be settling for the media’s frontrunner narratives and surface-level policy coverage. Let the candidates speak for themselves, and let them show their emotions and passion. There’s no room for the timid and thin-skinned in a match-up with Trump, and walking on eggshells during these primary debates is poor preparation.

Bookworm, foodie, music snob, fangirl, and all-around enthusiast. I write about pop culture, film, literature, sexuality, and politics.

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