The state of discourse as provided at the Republican debate
I’ve held off on writing about this topic for the right opportunity. There’s no mistaking that the Republican primary has been greatly shifted to the right due to the presence of Donald Trump. His seemingly unstoppable rhetoric has created a catastrophic game of chicken among the candidates vying for the nomination. Those who have refused to play by these rules have fallen from the polls, some nearly all the way to obscurity. Others, in the case of Ted Cruz, have found talking points volatile enough to ignite the interest of the Fox News cultivated base. Due to the ridiculous nature of this occurring largely in Trump’s company, it would be pointless to access any debate including the front runner.
Luckily, we’ve gotten a chance to see the Republican field without it’s clown prince of nonsense present. Thursday night’s debate showcased not only each candidate’s attempt to gain ground on the missing cult of personality but also the lack of intellectualism and understanding of a great number of the issues faced by the American people. More importantly, however, is the way the candidates treat the general idea of discourse.
Present on the stage among the career politicians of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Casich were 2 lawyers turned politicians, a world renowned neurosurgeon and an ophthalmologist. I bring this up to illustrate the caliber of men standing on the stage. Each of these men, regardless to their political acumen, are largely successful and intelligent. So how, given the multiple degrees and honors held by the candidates, do we wind up with nonsensical pandering and bickering in front of an entire nation.
Ted Cruz, in one of the few instances of candor of the night, admitted early on that the goal of a debate was to address issues, not to attack another candidate. Of course this declaration of good intent was betrayed shortly after by not only him but almost every other candidate before the night was over. But of course that doesn’t change the truth of the statement. With that in mind, I’m not going to largely focus on the content of the debate. It’s an easy enough sell to say that politicians lie, especially when looking at references and easily debunked statistics manifested by these candidates in previous debates. Instead, I’m going to look at the debate itself, the discourse that these well educated, highly influential men decided to take part in.
Simply put, it’s a mess.
Debate has never been a ground free from insult or insinuation. However, it can be said to have changed over the years. Politicians have rarely been afraid to sling a little mud at their opponents while debating, or even in passing conversation outside of the arena. However, in 1970, George Wallace took these occasional jabs and turned them into a legitimate strategy. Not only did Wallace brand his opponent Albert Brewer a sissy and questioned his sexuality in the place of promoting his own sparse policies, but he also appealed to white voters using overtly racist rhetoric and campaigning ads.
Since that time, rhetoric and proper discourse in the political theatre have largely been abandoned for marketing campaigns and ideological hit jobs when it comes to courting the public’s favor. Over the past three decades, our nation’s reliance on visual stimulation has ushered us into a arena more fit for acrobats and jugglers than for politicians and orators. Coming back to last night’s debate, it’s clear from the outset that both the tone and intentions set by the moderators were nothing but hostile. And Cruz was quick to point this out. Jeb Bush, who invoked the front runner’s name seemingly for the sole purpose of getting a reaction out of the crowd, stated that the goal of the Republican party should be to unify the United States, not divide it with such harsh rhetoric and policy that his opponents have been pushing since September. Perhaps this is why he has continued to struggle for the vast majority of his campaign. He’s being reasonable.
But, regardless to not only Bush and Casich, who also called for unification, but also Rand Paul’s rousing indictment about the cruelties many American’s face due to the war against drugs, the tone and cadence of the debate would not be shifted. Policy and opinion of each individual candidate was pitted against one another, largely for the purpose of highlighting the differences of the candidate’s likeability instead of the depth of their policy.
Naturally, this was why Cruz was targeted early on. And his response not only laid bare the truth of this and of almost all current debates being held this election cycle, it also proved his point when the moderators backed off of their directly pointed questions when he threatened to leave the stage. You can’t have a circus without the ringleader, right? And with Trump absent, that duty fell to Cruz’s shoulders.
In addition to the trading of swipes between one another, there was no hesitation by the candidates to pander to the sensibilities of their listening bases. In true chameleon fashion, Cruz answered the opening question about the absence of Trump by puckering up to the collective ass of Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held in less than a week. This trend remained a theme throughout the debate, and it followed two distinct paths.
Firstly, the candidates took the Cruzian approach of applying the shining name of honor to the people of Iowa, just as they did in every other state where a debate was held. You might consider this a polite acknowledgement for the hosts of the debate. Unfortunately, that prescription would not only be incorrect, but it would also be naive. The entire purpose of the debates are to court the favor of your base, of the voters in both the primary and general elections. In years long past, where debate meant hours of intellectually driven arguments centered on substance and not neutered by a buzzer after a minute and a half of response time, this would involve detailing your plan for the country and how it would be realistically implemented. But today, courting the favor of your base seems to only need the lubricating slime of flattery.
There was hardly anyone above reproach in this regard. Rubio was quick to correct the moderators when they suggested he was once called the “savior of the party”, Cruz likely got a two point bump solely from his opening statement, and Christie flat out told the Iowans how they thought, branding them as intelligent and him and the rest of the candidates on stage. Of course this apple polishing wasn’t just for the Iowans either, though surely they were the main targets. Every video submitter was lavishly thanked for their bravery in asking a question (questions that rarely got answered, by the way). But, the most outright appalling instance would have to go to Dr. Ben Carson, who’s regurgitation of a handful of lines from the Constitution made his closing statements the most cliche and bland attempt to curry favor during the debate.
By comparison though, this was the high road. Staying true to form, Chris Christie led the charge in shamelessly lambasting the current and potential administration of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, respectively. Nearly every candidate took the chance to decry the leadership of the current President a failure.
Rubio doubled down on his promise to rip the Iran Nuclear Deal to shreds on his first day in office. Cruz, not to be outdone, promised to repeal every. single. word. of Obamacare. And while routinely conservative responses were given for what they would do better, the taste of their seething indignation for their political opponents was rarely overshadowed by anything of real substance.
While it would be easy to use this as an example of why the Republican party is a broken toy holding on to the last few minutes of playtime with Andy, it’s more important that we look at what this means for discourse in general. This was the GOP’s big chance to show that they were a party that still held relevance in the current world. They had the opportunity to hit the issues without having to worry about deflecting the nonsense attacks cast one way or the other. Instead, they allowed the will of the moderators and the ghost of Donald Trump dictate the outcome of the debate.
This all has been long in the coming. Media networks like Fox News have been gearing towards this sort of anti intellectual style of discourse since the Reagan administration. The hateful and downright bigoted rhetoric flooding the airwaves has almost completely contaminated a large portion of the American population into believing that vastly complex, sprawling issues facing our nation can be fixed by a can do attitude and a wall around the United States. And because of this, our discourse has been tainted irrevocably.
For better or worse, Trump’s existence in this election has shown how distorted the views of a very vocal public have become. There’s little analysis being put into the front runner’s policies, because there are so few of them. The plan’s he’s touted during rallies and debates are largely anecdotal sensationalism. But that’s not an issue. All it takes is a decree to ban Muslims or to throw a man out into the cold without his jacket and the public are back on the Donald Express all over again. Truly, he is a cult of personality.
And the candidates know this. Once having laughed off the thought of Donald Trump as the nominee, they’ve all come to realize that his insane rhetoric reaches a number of people in the base, and a number of them have adjusted for that. Carson laid heavily into his “outsider” approach, and laughably, so did Christie. Cruz, probably the most dangerous of the group, found his home in second place by laying on the extremism and the crazy. And again, those who have tried to remain a moderate (read that as sane) voice in this race has dropped to nearly invisible ratings. This includes Rubio, the once thought of savior of the GOP.
There are rarely winners in the Republican debates, but there are always clear losers. In this, as in every other debate, it is clear that the loser is the American people. But, more importantly than even that, we have lost an institution that once allowed us to decide definitively who should be leading our country. We don’t have debates anymore. We have live feed attack ads and smear campaigns. The political theatre has turned into a stage of tragedy, and the body falling into the orchestral pit is that of proper discourse.