What we can learn from this year’s presidential debates

Save for some obvious drama and rhetorical outbursts that can only be found on American television, this year’s round of presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have revealed much about US democracy and its fragile state.

Following the gladiatorial duel between the two candidates—one punctuated by prominent gaffes, counter-factualism, and a bit of nodding-off on both sides—it has been determined that although Barack Obama won the final two debates, Mitt Romney emerged wholly ‘victorious’ with his powerful and confident first round. This perception is shared not only by some rightist media outlets, but by mainstream news sources (MSNBC, CNN, etc.) who simultaneously assess the result based on rhetorical fluidity, vocal command, and other superficial categories that do not address the substance of either candidates’ arguments, ‘facts,’ or perspectives.

While this point contradicts a basic objective of the American political machine (to coerce voters with words, not facts) and of modern televised debates in general, it speaks more broadly to the clash of realities that operates in the United States today, and how that tension has hobbled any real political, social, and economic progress.

The mutation of the Republican party since the early-1970s—which established an inconceivably cynical collection of plutocrats serving the best interests of finance capital, export-oriented growth, and social regression—is but a microcosm of this dual-reality, complemented only by an increasingly complacent Democratic party whose roots lie much further from New Deal and Great Society-principles than they may like to think.

Indeed, from a party that, on the one hand, is torn between social democracy and the alluring glow of neoliberalism, to another whose message is obfuscated by religious fundamentalism and rampant pandering to the one percent, springs a nearly impossible political situation that stifles significant change at many levels of governance.

These aforementioned ‘realities’ were in full play at all three rounds of the 2012 presidential debate.

For Mitt Romney, and to many critical eyes on both sides of the ideological spectrum, basic debating skills couldn’t mask a performance that was dotted with myths and embarrassing lies. For the purposes of this blog post, I will not specifically identify these instances (for there are many) but point readers toward Igor Volsky’s piece from ThinkProgress.org that does a magnificent job of dissecting Governor Romney’s comments and their inherent untruthfulness.

Romney’s reality, then, is one that does not (and seemingly cannot) distinguish between a truth and an untruth, a startling characteristic that viewers were afforded throughout each debate.

Obama’s performance, on the other hand, exuded a level of political professionalisms eternally lost on Mittens, but it still couldn’t mask a brand of language and disposition marred in complacency and a reticence to address systemic issues that presently threaten American hegemony and domestic life.

The pressures of foreign wars, escalating tensions with Iran and the Muslim world, blind allegiance to the state of Israel, and a crumbling domestic economy all put human life at risk in the United States and outside of it. During the presidential debates, Obama made but a meagre effort to confront such issues, instead projecting a view that only through bi-partisanship (admittedly, with fascist opponents) can change be enacted.

In this reality, urgency is non-existent; Obama’s cries for participation, active citizenship, or even voting were weak in the debates, and the President’s sometimes listless rambling did his followers no favours. Even for American leftists who will largely, and grudgingly, cast a ballot for Obama despite his track-record which looks just like that of George W. Bush, ‘hope’ and ‘change’ seem like a fleeting memory.

If the global force of Occupy indicated anything, it is that the current state of affairs in the United States is one to be concerned about. Rising real and youth unemployment, a weakening industrial and manufacturing apparatus, exorbitant defence spending, rampant incarceration rates, extra-judicial global policing, foreign drone attacks, and more put a very important nation in a very precarious position.

The 2012 presidential debates offer little hope to average Americans—perhaps the 47% who Governor Romney sees as plebeian freeloaders—but should energize critical minds to think about their vote and how the aforementioned realities operate in their daily political life. Only with such introspection and subsequent analysis will a more robust alternative politics emerge in the United States, ready to lead the nation in a progressive direction.

For further reading, I suggest Tariq Ali’s The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (Verso, 2011) for a scholarly and nuanced account of the President’s administration and American political life in the twenty-first century.