During their second TV debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have demonstrated rather little appreciation for political statements. Ultimately the spotlight fell on the personal conflict between both candidates. But what is so new about that?
A Comment by Kaloyan Halachev
A Show Ticket to the White House
Journalists, social scientists and political commentators around the world have reported about Sunday’s presidential debate and some came to harsh conclusions. ”The ‘Mudfight in Missouri’ was the most poisonous debate in US presidential history”, headlined the The Telegraph. “Am Tiefpunkt”, moaned the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And The Washington Post summed up: “The answer is no: We haven’t seen anything quite like this”. The author of the latter article, Dan Balz, even suggested that “what occurred here on Sunday is likely to be remembered as the Spectacle in St. Louis”.
The American journalist, columnist and publicist Dennis Prager may be right when he says that “we live in the age of feelings”. But “analyses written in the heat of the moment and burdened by passions and frustrations” help us to get “the characters of the political actors right, but the story wrong”, according to the Bulgarian political scientist and philosopher Ivan Krastev.
In the Lion’s Den
In Running for Governor – one of Mark Twain’s most charming sketches – the great American writer spun a short essay about a democratic election where Mark Twain appeared both as narrator and character. In the story, the protagonist agreed to accept the nomination for Governor of the great state of New York and to run against his competitors on an independent ticket. Taking on the role, Mr. Twain considered his good character his major asset in competition and did not teeter for too long to step on the public stage to challenge his opponents. As he tiptoed in the lion’s den, he slowly realised he would face a good deal of mental anguish and suddenly newspapers were full of stories about Mr. Twain. “Accusers he has never met from places he has never been come out of the woodwork to testify against him and to undermine Twain’s nomination […] by making false charges”. Stricken to the core, Mr. Twain eventually signed his withdrawal from the candidacy with: “Truly yours, once a decent man, but now “MARK TWAIN, I.P., M.T., B.S., D.T., F.C., and L.E.” The letters stood for: Infamous Perjurer, Montana Thief, Body Snatcher, Delirium Tremens, Filthy Corruptionist and Loathsome Embracer.
The essay written in the aftermath of the New York 1870 gubernatorial election is a lively exhibition of a paradoxical but crucial aspect of democracy and the lesson is clear: Democratic politics needs drama.
The Paradoxical Utility of Duality
In 2014, Ivan Krastev published a little book called “Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest” where the author pondered to the dual function of democracy. Krastev outlined that in democracies the goal is “to inspire the apathetic to interest in public life, while simultaneously cooling down the passion of the zealot” with elections having mobilising effects on passive voters but pacifying effects on outraged folks. Hence, the “transcendental character” makes elections “a machine for the production of collective dreams”.
However, Krastev stressed also that a favourable framework is required for elections to unfold their “healing powers”. And political confrontation and the discourse of crisis are important elements of it. As a result, the image of an election with the perspective of becoming nothing less than the next turning point in history is successfully created. “Elections lose [otherwise] their cogency when they fail to convince us both that we are confronting an unprecedented crisis and that we have it on our power to evert it”.
Put the Spectacle of St. Louis into Perspective
The Invocation of the term ‘spectacle’ indicates a new wave of “revolutionary” democratic politics, which is characterised by a lack of an ideological or a conceptional approach. The second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was carried out within a context of emotive polarity. Personal stories and ethical disputes have dominated the evening. On the other hand, policy statements seemed quite rare. In fact, the first question asked by a studio guest was: “Do you feel you’re modelling appropriate and positive behaviour for today’s youth?” Respectively, Hillary Clinton expressed “a very positive and optimistic view about what we can do together” and Donald Trump responded how embarrassed he is about the “locker room talk” and added that he “will knock the hell out of ISIS“.
At the peak of the mini-mudfight, Donald Trump went so far to inform his opponent what will happen with her in case he becomes a president: “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception”. All in all, both candidates followed the strategy of denunciating the opponent while self-praising their own work. A Facebook-user asked Clinton and Trump: “Isn’t the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped”? In response, Hillary Clinton has only expressed the hope that at the time she is a president ISIS will be pushed out of Iraq. And Donald Trump may hope that Russia successfully pushed ISIS out of Syria by the time he becomes president.
Interestingly enough, neither the democratic nor the republican candidate were keen on unfolding their conclusive concepts. The purpose of round 2 was obviously not Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump having a serious political discussion in front of millions of viewers. There is only little hope that the last TV debate on October 19 will turn out to be different. But why risk a political drama in the age of feelings?
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