Welcome back to Going Downs, a newsletter about the intersection of celebrity and politics.
Hey everyone, it’s Brenden, Claire’s husband, back for another Wednesday newsletter. Today I want to confess a deep dark secret: I kind of love debates.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have more than a passing interest in politics. And while a lot of that results in righteous indignation at America not being a socialist utopia (or at least more like France), I also enjoy the spectacle.
No, people with even a glancing knowledge of politics don’t learn anything new in debates. But that isn’t the point. The point of the debates is to see how effectively candidates can communicate their ideas to people who typically don’t give a shit.
40% of Americans didn’t vote in the last election, and America consistently has a pretty low turnout compared to the rest of the world. Pundits like to act like this means something is wrong with our culture blah, blah, blah... but I would argue that the problem lies with our political parties.
If you give people a reason to vote, they will vote. And if you are going to give people a reason, you have to be an effective communicator. Low voter turnout is self-evident proof that American citizens don’t think either political party can do much for them.
Considering the US government’s utter failure to respond to the global pandemic, who can blame them?
In a country with such low political participation, debates function not as a referendum on a candidate’s policies, but as a chance to spark the country’s interest.
Many of the most prominent celebrities on political Twitter deemed the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden to be a failure.
I get why the celebs and the normies alike were annoyed by the debate, but I actually thought it did what a presidential debate was supposed to do. It showed us how both candidates would try to move the political needle. Trump motivates his base by badgering and belittling his opposition. MAGA people love it.
Joe Biden offers an interesting opposition to Trump’s bullying. His rhetorical style has been standing toe to toe and then turning to the camera and delivering a “get a load of this asshole” smirk. And I think it is working.
I am way more confident than most people about Biden winning the election, and I have been for months because I think that Joe -- for all of his faults -- is focusing on how he can connect with people disaffected by politics. While I would prefer he did it with policy rather than posturing, I think that his attitude of “Hey, I get it. I think it’s crazy too.” is a winner.
After he wins the election, I think his message won’t have as much strength. With Trump gone, will he be able to sell “getting it” as a reason to support him? That remains to be seen, but polling tells us it is a winning campaign tactic.
The same goes for Vice-Presidential debates. If you watch the VP showdown, don’t look for a discussion of issues. Look for a battle of communication styles. While Kamala Harris and Mike Pence aren’t really going to have much to do in the way of directly shaping policy in the White House (VPs rarely do, Dick Cheney excepted), they are avatars of particular trends in American life.
Mike Pence is the severe patriarchal evangelical that you still see all over the heartland. I met my fair share growing up. Believe me. Trump’s electoral hopes depend on his ability to deliver the votes of America’s weird uptight Christians.
Kamala Harris represents a kind of tote bag hauling, sneaker loving Gen-Xer who aims to be America’s “cool mom.” We can discuss her record as a prosecutor if you want, but most Americans don’t know about it and don’t care. Whatever you think of her policies, Harris is much more fluent in the Democratic base’s progressive language than Biden. And Biden’s hope is that she can assure his left flank.
Theatre is a part of politics everywhere, even in countries with near-universal political participation. Jeremy Corbyn cultivated a public persona of the aloof professor. Emmanuel Macron presents himself as a technocratic overlord. Angela Merkel has been Germany’s steady hand at the keel for decades, and her public hasn’t tired of it.
If you look at debates as fodder for political junkies, you are going to be annoyed. If you look at these debates as a reality show pilot, you’ll have a lot more fun. You may think this is uniquely American, but this is actually how politics has always and will always work.
Politics is about the messenger as much as the message. Debates show us just how effective your preferred messenger is going to be. So sit back and enjoy the show. You’ll have more fun that way.
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