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What Struck Me Watching the Final Presidential Debate

(Morry Gash/AP)

Our public discourse must turn away from retrospective litigation and verbal crossfire and, instead, shift towards real politics…”

In a 1971 address at the London School of Economics, British philosopher Maurice Cranston suggested that politics is an argument about the future. In defining politics as such, Cranston provided a helpful criterion for judging the political content of any discussion or debate, including ones between presidential contenders. Although last night’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was an improvement upon their initial clash of incoherence, it failed to meet the standard of real politics—i.e., arguments about the future direction of the polity.

One need not go full Schmittian to acknowledge that conflict—of interests, identities, and rights—constitutes the essence of politics. As the late political theorist Bernard Crick wrote in his 1992 book, In Defence of Politics (4th edition), “Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule.” 

Only in the presence of conflict and difference must we make a choice: We can either resort to violence to resolve our differences, or we can talk through our differences and establish an agreed upon means of enforcing the resolutions we reach through deliberation (that is, a system of law). Option A is chaos; Option B is politics. Politics is the alternative to violence, which is why Crick rightly appreciated politics “as a pearl beyond price in the history of the human condition.”

If politics offers the optimal means of navigating differences within a society (I, for one, have yet to come across a better alternative), it is inherently forward-looking. When we engage in politics, we are acting as citizens forging a way forward for our common polity; we are not historians haggling over a particular past event or family members airing decades-old feuds and grievances. We are simply arguing about how precisely tomorrow ought to be different from today, if at all. 

This brings us to last night’s debate between President Trump and Vice President Biden—a supposedly political debate that was woefully lacking in arguments about our nation’s future. Of course, any political debate will entail heated exchanges over past decisions and the purported dark spots on the candidates’ respective records. But last night felt a bit different, especially in the first half or so of the debate, when the key points of contention were personal tax returns and familial corruption. Instead of providing material for brief side jabs and questions over an opponent’s judgment or character, these issues were the prime topics; more often than not, they were the debate.

Perhaps the President’s tax paying habits and Hunter Biden’s convoluted get-rich-quick-off-my-family-name schemes are of great interest to voters, but I would venture to guess that this is not the case due to the simple reason that these are—in the formal sense of the term—not exactly political topics. 

And even when the discussion did in fact center around the future of public policy in the United States of America—even when the discussion became ostensibly political—the candidates seemed more intent on arguing over the past than over the future. 

President Trump was especially guilty of displaying a penchant for the past. After performing his ever-humble “I am the second coming of Abraham Lincoln” ritual, the President treated the viewing audience to a detailed critique of Vice President Biden’s role in passing the ever notorious 1994 crime bill. Alas, if only the president could have summoned the same amount of passion and commitment to detail when asked about what his agenda for the next four years looks like with respect to criminal justice reform—not to mention chronic issues like black unemployment and educational achievement gaps—we might have gotten somewhere; we might have had some politics. 

Part of why I will be enthusiastically voting for Vice President Biden is that the man at least evinces a genuine interest in engaging in politics—in having debates about our future. This is not to say that he is perfect. Indeed, even if Vice President Biden wins on November 3rd, we have quite a long way to go before we have a healthy, forward-looking politics once more. A political system devoid of President Trump will help ease our transition back into debates over the real issues at hand and over our future, but the damage the past few years have done—and the buildup of civic contempt that made them possible in the first place—will take years, decades even, to undo.

Hopefully, in the aftermath of the mayhem that has been the 2020 election, American citizens and their elected leaders will quit looking with menacing side eyes at the other side and begin moving forward. Our public discourse must turn away from retrospective litigation and verbal crossfire and, instead, shift towards real politics—real arguments about our common future. If we prove unable to make this most necessary transition, I question how much longer our future will in fact be a common one.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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