On Tuesday night we saw the first of three televised debates between the two candidates for the position of the President of USA. Although the effects of election campaigns and television debates on overall electoral behavior are said to be small, they are not negligible. Television debates are the only events in the campaign in which competition competes directly in showing off rhetorical muscles. For voters, it is a unique opportunity to make judgments about the strengths and abilities of candidates, as electoral decision-making is largely based on making comparative judgements. No other event in the election campaign offers voters the opportunity to directly compare the two alternatives.
The debate was watched on TV by 73 million Americans, or 22.5% of all U.S. citizens. If we add all of those who watched the debate on the Internet, it means that a quarter of the population or. over more than half of the registered voters, 150 million in the United States, watched (part of) the debate. Given the fact that at least 10% of voters are still undecided on whether to go to the polls and who to vote for, the debate was an opportunity for both candidates to gain a decisive competitive advantage in the increasingly close campaign. None succeeded.
The debates were far from unfolding below expectations. All of us who have been following American politics and Trump for a long time knew what to expect. Nevertheless, there was a lot of expressed disappointment in the responses in the media over the level of the debate and its lack of policy deliberation. Disappointment is always associated with expectations and their non-fulfillment, and anyone who had expected an argumentative, dialectical debate on public policy solutions for social problems was wrong. There are at least two objective and well-known reasons for such a low level of this political debate.
The first reason for the content emptiness of the debate is the increasingly dominant personalization of politics – a trend that began with television and deepened with the Internet and social networks. The point is that the characters and images of the candidates are the basic focus, basic message of the campaign, and political programs are put in the background. U.S. presidential campaigns are by their very nature highly personalized, as they are a struggle for office between two people, making them focus on the character candidates as future holders of public office. This is especially true for this election campaign, as almost no one even bothers to pretend anymore that the only relevant issue is the referendum on Donald Trump.
Personalization was at a new level of absurdity with this year when Trump presented only 50 points instead of clear policy plans, most of which are neither concrete nor measurable. They are more reminiscent of the guidelines and ideological messages. It is true that the majority of the general public does not read the political programs of candidates or political parties, but there is still a whole bunch of interested publics who want or need to know what measures will be advanced under which president. And if there is no program, then even a discussion cannot be overly substantive.
The second reason for such a state of affairs is the increasing polarization. During Trump’s presidency, it happened for the first time that Gallup saw a simultaneous rise in extreme trust and extreme distrust in when measuring confidence and trust in the U.S. president. The main reason for the quarrel and mutual hatred between the socio-political factions of both sides is Trump and his way of presiding, leading and communicating with the public. Supporting and opposing Trump is the main axis around which the basic political identities of voters in this election are built
The quarrel between citizens with different political beliefs has become so deep that members from different groups no longer communicate with each other, which has led citizens to retreat to their “bubbles” and “echo chambers” where they receive only information confirming their ideology and beliefs. Confrontations of political candidates are also proxy confrontations between members of different factions, who are in a competitive race for political and symbolic capital. Each candidate has limited options for choosing his constituents – his people. It is not necessary to be liked by everyone to win the election – it is impossible – but just enough voters, as it is necessary for the final victory, which is why it is important that the candidate effectively addresses selected groups of voters, despite alienating the rest of the electorate.
In a highly personalized campaign and a highly polarized society, a different debate than we have witnessed is impossible. It was similar to discussions on social media, where more important than arguments is that you are louder, more vulgar and more confident in your own truth than the competition. The biggest losers of this partisan show are undecided voters and those who are not yet sure whether they will go to the polls, because they hardly heard anything new about their possible futures. But what could voters – decided and undecided – learn from this debate?
Of the major topics, foreign policy received the least attention. Other major topics – economy, health, social (racial) issues and the character of the candidates – got their traditional chunk of attention. Additional topics were the appointment of federal judges and global warming. The candidates did not pay too much attention to the substantive answers to the questions asked, ie defining problems and solutions, but spent most of their time on ad hominem attacks.
Trump was standardly provocative and tried to be dominant in the debate. One of Trump’s strategies was to force Biden to take such a stand to alienate “radical left” voters. He also wanted to bring him to his own, low level of discussion, and by tiring and jumping into Biden’s word, confuse him to such an extent that the latter would appear to be a candidate with low cognitive abilities. Several times it was clear he successfully got under Biden’s skin.
Biden, on the other hand, was almost overselling on how bad a candidate Donald Trump is. He attacked Trump on almost every issue, insisting in attack mode most of the time, even when it wasn’t necessary. For some more demanding, undecided voters, the presentation of a clear vision of the development and future of the United States was lacking with Biden. Just as Trump never once uttered the slogan “Make America Great Again,” so Biden did not present a clear, substantively potent slogan. In light of understanding this election as a referendum on Trump, Biden has remained true to his key message: that he is a good candidate because he is not Donald Trump.
There will be two more TV debates between Biden and Trump until the election, on October 15th and 22nd. The two vice-presidential candidates will meet and debate once, on October 8th. Until then, both campaigns – directly or indirectly – will certainly launch more stories, information and lies, in order to influence the decisions of those voters who have not yet been decided, and to mobilize those who are already convinced.
Regardless of the result, these presidential elections show us the future of political culture and the level of political debates, if we remain trapped in the same dynamics of factional struggles and the direction of social disintegration. In circumstances where truth and reality are relative and adapted to each individual, and the relationship between people is hostile, civilized dialogue as the basis of democratic deliberation is impossible. Politics remains only a competition in shouting and insulting, while the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting more and more dispossessed.