Presidential debates used to be boring … but civil.
“I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same,” Sen. John F. Kennedy said of Vice President Richard Nixon during the first ever televised presidential debate in 1960. “The question before us is, which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?”
Like any presidential race, debates were also combative, but done so in a cunning, sophisticated and sometimes jokingly manner.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” President Ronald Reagan said to challenging Vice President Walter Mondale during a 1984 presidential debate. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That comment even drew a chuckle from Mondale.
But contrast that to now.
The first presidential debate of 2020 was filled with back-and-forth name calling, vicious accusations, senseless butt-ins and an unchecked, yet justified, “Will you shut up, man?” from former Vice President Joe Biden to President Donald Trump.
The fight for the most revered chair at the table of the United States was belittled to a kindergarten scuffle about “Who stole whose crayon?”
Where has decency gone?
The answers to this question remain abounding, flush and opinionated in many ways. Arguably, there is no right or wrong answer, for the answers themselves remain subjective. Some might even maintain that decency is still intact.
My answer, I like to think, is simple, and it stems from Big Stick ideology.
Throughout his presidency, President Theodore Roosevelt upheld the mindset to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” This idea was specifically directed toward his foreign policy approach. And what it meant, according to Brian Fung of The Atlantic, was “that talking politely and allowing others to perceive Washington's latent power would do more for it than it would to go around making examples of people.”
While there have been instances here-and-there over the past four years of using force “to make examples of people” overseas, ironically, it’s been seen more lately in our own country during a period of civil unrest — any word that comes out of the White House these days is not spoken softly or politely.
Twitter has censored several of the president’s recent tweets due to his threatening rhetoric. And during a time when marginalized and silenced groups need to be heard, he’s put on his noise reduction earmuffs and has crowed about the military power he has to silence these groups even further.
Most of the racial demonstrations across the country amidst this time have been peaceful, but some have turned into riots. And while riots need to be addressed, they first need to be understood. By not taking the time to recognize why they happen, Trump has turned patriotic ideals into nationalistic beliefs.
True patriots love their country; they want the best for it, and they want the best for everyone living in it. Nationalists love their country, but they want it to be the best instead of wanting the best for it. There’s a difference.
That’s why in the final presidential debate before the Nov. 3 election, Trump downplayed COVID-19 saying, “We are rounding the corner,” as the U.S. currently averages an astounding 60,000 cases per day, as of Oct. 22. That’s why he hasn’t spoken about the cries from those who continue to be racially oppressed.
He doesn’t want to admit that our country is internally broken when it is.
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As I watched the latest presidential debate, I noticed something that could’ve easily gotten lost among the million other remarks made. In talking about his former immigration reform policy, Biden said he and the Obama administration “made a mistake.”
Regardless of the policy, I loved hearing from a politician who said himself that he “made a mistake.” It’s refreshing, and it’s something this current administration seems incapable of doing.
Being a patriot does not exempt you from being a human. Humans make mistakes. Taking accountability and righting your wrongs are what make you a patriot.
Now, circling back to Kennedy: “The question before us is, which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?”
An obstinate nationalist, or a receptive patriot?
This column is part of our Election 2020 print edition. View the full issue here.
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