Viewing the Presidential debates – of any year – from this perspective, we look first not at what they say, but at how they look. It’s about who looks more relaxed, confidant, articulate, trustworthy, folksy or personable. But above all, their intention is, simply, to look “presidential.” Their smiles and calm demeanor (even as they attack each other) and their friendly banter afterwards, tell us that they are qualified to carry the essential Protestant virtue of repressed emotion. It’s about looking like the best example of a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Barack Obama, by the way, was, except for his color, the best example since George Bush the Elder.
As I have argued in my book, the greatest sin in Puritanism is the inability to control one’s impulses. And this is precisely where we can identify our national shadow, when we project that impulsivity upon minorities, immigrants and terrorists. But presidential candidates are different. By restraining themselves, they – even Donald Trump – show us that they are not the Dionysian “Other.” They, and by extension, we are part of the club.
As Americans we are especially subject to being conned. So, although we know we have been burned before, we are likely (they are counting on this) to convince ourselves of their good intentions. More than anything, each of them appears sincere; he really cares about us; he could be a King.
Secondly, we observe their dual role of gatekeepers. I first wrote this essay during the Obama / Romney campaign, but it describes all “debates” that have followed. At that time, Glenn Greenwald and George Farah described “The lame rules for presidential debates: a perfect microcosm of US democracy”:
We have a private corporation that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties…Under this elaborate regime, the candidates aren’t permitted to ask each other questions, propose pledges to each other, or walk outside a predesignated area…the audience members posing questions aren’t allowed to ask follow-ups…every single question asked by the audience (must) be submitted in advance on an index card to the moderator, who can then throw out the ones he or she does not like…And this election cycle is the first time that the moderator herself is prohibited from asking follow-up questions…
… the Commission is run by lobbyists and funded by large corporations. Meanwhile, the moderators were selected to ensure that nothing unexpected is asked and that only the most staid and establishment views are heard.
In this context, the debate moderator (etymology: “modest, restrained,” past participle of moderari, “to regulate, mitigate, restrain, temper, set a measure, keep within measure”) – becomes a critical participant, quite literally the master of ceremonies. As such, he (usually it’s a he) must have a Television track record of appearing at least as restrained as the debaters in both demeanor and social views. Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper, Martha Raddatz, Chris Wallace, Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, you get the picture. Greenwald and Farah continue:
In order to be considered as a candidate for moderator you have to be soaked in the sphere of consensus, likely to stay within the predictable inner rings of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and unlikely in the extreme to select any questions from the sphere of deviance.
Here then, within this one process of structuring the presidential debates, we have every active ingredient that typically defines, and degrades, U.S. democracy. The two parties collude in secret. The have the same interests and goals. Everything is done to ensure that the political process is completely scripted and devoid of any spontaneity or reality…All views that reside outside the narrow confines of the two parties are rigidly excluded. Anyone who might challenge or subvert the two-party duopoly is rendered invisible.
The media’s role is to keep the discourse as restrictive and unthreatening as possible while peddling the delusion that it’s all vibrant and free and independent and unrestrained…while wildly exaggerating the choices available to citizens and concealing the similarities between the two parties.
This last paragraph is a clear reference to Noam Chomsky’s insights into the role of the media in elections:
The public relations industry, which essentially runs the elections, is applying certain principles to undermine democracy which are the same as the principles that apply to undermine markets. The last thing that business wants is markets in the sense of economic theory. Take a course in economics, they tell you a market is based on informed consumers making rational choices. Anyone who’s ever looked at a TV ad knows that’s not true…The goal is to undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices…The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices…between the factions of the business party that amass sufficient support from concentrated private capital to enter the electoral arena, then to dominate campaign propaganda.
We fidget while the nominees confine their arguments to the thin range of opinion that their corporate handlers and focus-group research has shown to be of concern to the undecided (white) voters that they are actually competing for.
Watch them in a sea of American flags competing to be the one who is more willing to use military force – anywhere – to protect freedom. This, of course, is the ultimate gate-keeping role: to absolutely guarantee that any issues or persons that might call the function of the ritual – and therefore the function of our mythology – into question are safely confined to the margins, literally outside of the ritual space and outside of our awareness.
We notice whom they agree to exclude from the debate – the third-party candidates. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, was actually shackled for eight hours to ensure that she wouldn’t barge in on the ritual.
I’m afraid I have to point out, by the way, that had you been a peasant in Honduras or Somalia or the Philippines or a resident of Gaza watching the debates, you would have discerned almost no difference whatsoever between the candidates, or between Trump and Hilary Clinton four years later.
Part of the frustration that progressives feel when enduring these excuses for debates results from the fact that the vetting process is already over. It is an axiom of American political science that candidates typically attempt to motivate party activists during the primaries – people who are always more extreme in their views than the party insiders – and then “run to the center” after the (pre-)anointed one has won the nomination.
And, by speaking only of the white middle class and its concerns, they subtly reinforce the belief that the nation is defined only by these people, which, because we are watching, is us – those who read the New York Times and Washington Post, those who are already subject to the conservative to liberal version of the myth of American Innocence, the version which excludes all others. Therefore, we are not the “Other.”
Still, events of the years since November 22nd, 1963 have made us quite cynical. Few of us remain so naïve as to listen to their arguments in hopes of seeing any actual policy implemented. The Republican Ronald Reagan’s promises to reduce government were belied by a massively increased national debt and police state, and the Democrat Bill Clinton proudly destroyed welfare, condemning thousands to life on the streets.
It is useless to speculate whether any candidate who rises to this level is interested in significant change of any kind. We can, of course, never know their actual feelings, nor do such feelings matter. Even if an American President were truly interested in significant, positive change, he wouldn’t have the power to make it happen. We watch only to view the roles they are playing in the ritual.
By not addressing global warming, the military-industrial complex, mass poverty, race, corporate welfare, the police state, voter suppression and outright, massive corruption of the voting process itself, they invite us to collude in the fiction that such issues are simply beyond the pale of acceptable discussion. After all, if they won’t talk about these things, perhaps we needn’t either.
Most importantly, they won’t (will not be allowed to) address the ongoing sacrifice of young people to the furnace of war, because as Marvin and Ingle write:
Body sacrifice lies at the core of nationalism. Warfare is the most powerful enactment of the ritual of blood sacrifice…The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the death of a significant portion of its members. In short, society depends upon the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group.
We, dear readers, are the group. Well, not really, since our children won’t be among the sacrificed, those who will die for capitalism. But in the broader sense, who could argue that our generation has not condemned them all to a collapsing ecosystem and polluted bodies?