A mere four years ago, pundits were bemoaning the death of the Lincoln-Douglas style debate. In an election cycle defined by quips about “binders full of women” and where the most serious dismantling of ideology involved repeatedly calling it “malarkey,” the staid deliberation of 19th century campaigning seemed the height of rhetorical finesse.
If the clamoring for such gravitas seems absent from this election, and it is, it’s because decorum is no longer a consideration of the voting populace. How could it be when there’s been more discussion of sexual misconduct than policy proposals, when trite personal epithets have more staying power than statements of principles.
Lest blame be placed on candidates alone, let’s remember who promotes such behavior. Social media trends do not promote themselves, nor do candidates advance through the primacy process on their own impetus alone.
If the quality of political discourse has degraded, it is because the populace, at some fundamental level, is accepting of it.
At the risk of being sophistic, the degradation of discourse falls squarely on the vaunted shoulders of Shakespeare. His utterly inane riposte about brevity being the soul of wit is granted far too much credence as a piece of serious intellectualism.
And yet, what, other than form, differs between this idea and the much descried modern culture of soundbite policy and hashtag activism? Nothing.
The soaring rhetoric of figures like John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan might be logistically unnecessary for communication, but it is not a mistake that these figures are nevertheless remembered as uniters who promoted the best qualities of American culture and inspired the voting public in their private endeavors. Leave aside the different social structures and values of their times and there is nothing substantively different between the domestic shortfalls and international upheaval leaders then and now faced. Nor, contrary to the idea of those who adopt cynicism as a modern ideology, were they fundamentally less partisan than modern leaders.
If Reagan and JFK loom from the American mythos it is not just a testament to their abilities, but to the culture at the time. The voters who elected them to office had definite expectations about how government and its leaders should operate. Meritocracy was not some romanticized ideal which belonged to the realm of abstract discussions in high school civics classes; it was fought for.
That is no longer the case. How could it be when voting is an inconvenience to be fit into the fray of daily lives and national ad campaigns emphasize how quickly and painlessly it can be done, when “politics” evokes images of bitter squabbling between partisan pundits on the news and the issues are boiled into highlights reels that allow voters to grasp the “general idea” of what has occurred?
A government by the worst is called a kakistocracy. But, it is important to remember that the government does not arrive at that state of being by its own efforts alone. Candidates can’t be evaluated in a vacuum.
It is easy to point to one’s neighbors, particularly if they belong to another party or different wing of one’s own party, and cast aspersions on his or her voting choices because they jar with one’s personal judgment about how to prioritize social actions. But this histrionic pearl clutching exists more as a way of placating one’s own sense of morality than bridging the actual divide. It is nothing but excuse making.
If, as the doomsayers popular on social media are claiming, 2016 represents the worst of both parties and is truly the beginning of an American era of kleptocracy, it is as much the fault of voters as the party leadership. And until Americans accept this uncomfortable truth and embrace the responsibilities that come with freedom, it is not a trend that will reverse itself.