The presidential debates usually are tightly scripted and well-rehearsed joint press conferences. But because they’re one of the few places where our next president can speak to the country at length and unfiltered by the media, the debates matter now more than ever.
Democracy requires a dialogue about its fundamental principles. But instead of a contest of political assertions relating to policy goals, our politics has become more about affirming a particular worldview and social consciousness. What we’re seeing might be the first postmodern election.
The essential feature of modernism is the pursuit of objective and empirical truth. From a postmodern perspective, truth as a goal is as impossible as it is silly.
Reality has been on life support for years – dating back to 1997, when Bill Clinton urged us to contemplate the meaning of “is.” But what was once the egregious exception has become the norm. Truth has taken a serious hit this campaign season.
“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” said Neil Newhouse, a pollster for the Romney campaign. Newhouse was soundly criticized, but his was a classic Kinsley-style gaffe-truth.
It used to be that competing narratives were spun from a commonly accepted set of facts. The goal was to put those facts in the best possible light. Facts were politicized, but agreement on policy was still possible.
The new narratives begin with a moral stance, which facts are then spun into or out of it. If the goal before was winning elections and forming public policy, the new goal is more demanding but actually easier to achieve: righteousness. Disagreement is essential to preserve the integrity of the narrative, which means that compromise is not only impossible but contemptible.
The conservative narrative includes self-reliance, American exceptionalism, and Judeo-Christian values. The liberal narrative is based on equality and the inherent goodness of human nature and government. The rhetoric of freedom is perhaps the most contested territory: conservatives want freedom to mean economic freedom, while liberals are more concerned with political freedom.
As much as they are firm, each side is also flawed. In their pure forms, the conservative position is as specific and skeptical as the liberal position is vague and naive. Liberals put their faith in themselves and each other, while conservatives use religion and God.
Conservatives chide the left for its reliance on “identity” politics, by which they mean race, class, gender and sexual orientation. But the right too has its identities: American, Christian, entrepreneur. Conservatives emphasize sameness and make a virtue of exclusion; liberals emphasize difference and make a virtue of inclusion.
Both narratives also misuse history – conservatives for its supposed goodness and justice, liberals for its relative badness and injustice.
The narratives have grown impenetrable not in spite of our media, but because of it. The number of media outlets and volume of coverage means that every citizen can construct his or her own political narratives, safe inside bubbles of interpretation and meaning.
For their part, candidates feed into the frenzy – Obama stays away from Fox, Romney stays away from MSNBC. But the media is under no compulsion to create a safe space for softball questions. And, conversely, if voters are going to hear what they want to hear, then there’s little to be lost from giving it to them.
In short, the quest for objectivity and truth has rendered them both inconsequential. A refusal to believe scientific consensus not because of its uncertainty, but because of its certainty. The Dark Ages were dark because of superstition and ignorance. But the New Dark Age is dark because we’ve fitted ourselves with blinders. It’s Orwell’s 1984 – without the need for state tyranny.
It’s possible that new communities could be formed where issues are less abstract and problems require more immediate attention. But that would mean a fracturing of national political life.
The debates might be the last place where the narratives collide, which is exactly why we need more of them.
Michels is an associate professor of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield and the author of “The Case against Democracy.”