Amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden met on a debate stage one-on-one for the first time. With no audience creating noise and just 2 candidates participating, a tense battle of ideas played out in the small quiet studio at CNN headquarters without interruption for 2 hours. Surprisingly, despite the fact that much of the sporting, events, and entertainment industries were in the process of shutting down, just 10 million viewers tuned in. One of the most substantive debates of the past 5 years garnered some of the lowest ratings of all 11 Democratic primary debates. Apparently, the rest of the country was distracted by the coronavirus.
All of the Democratic Party’s internal debates of the past 4 years were brought into sharp contrast, embodied in the two men. The layers of symbolic meaning were piled high for all to see. Here was the establishment against the upstart, the moderate liberals against the Left, rich against the poor, and the compassionate romance of our nostalgic past against the bold and visionary dreams of our future generations. The candidates faced questions that lie at the very heart of debates within the Democratic Party and across the broader Left, questions about the value of revolutions and the impropriety of praising foreign dictators, questions about health care, the climate change, and the role of women and minorities in the future of our nation. However, beneath the surface of many such questions lurked the ever-present Trumpian influence, like the ghostwriter of a political thriller.
For instance, whether Bernie should or should not praise Cuba for its literacy rates or China for successfully reducing the number of human beings living in abject poverty over the past 30 years is, in reality, a complex series of questions about which opinions are acceptable to espouse in the age of Trump. The question about whether it is appropriate to compliment regimes is a challenge to Bernie Sanders’ intellectual openness to learning from anti-democratic governments cloaked in a simple appeal to a specific kind of nationalism in which authoritarian governments can’t be better than America because they are not as free as America. For Sanders’ critics, the fact that Cuba has some of the highest literacy rates in the world is all well and good, but the fact that they achieved such literacy rates as the result of anti-democratic governance means that such literacy rates are the products of suffering and despotism, akin in a way to the musical prowess of North Korean school children who are forced to sing for the dear leader on pain of death. No one would praise North Korea for having so many well-trained musicians in that context.
But there is also an impropriety in praising such regimes that Democrats are wary of at the moment: Trump has praised and fraternized with many authoritarians, and Democrats want someone who will not appear to make the same mistake.
On the one hand, Sanders’ reason for praising such governments is narrow and pedantic. He wants to be allowed to state simple facts of historical truth in an analytic style befitting academics and policy wonks. It is simply true that Cuba has fantastic literacy rates. It is simply true that China reduced its abject poverty rates to historic lows in recent years. On the other hand, Sanders is articulating a fundamental vision of politics and an approach to governance that is scientifically postured: we should not be afraid to learn from other countries. Political science cannot perform its own experiments and therefore relies on observations of organically arising human societies to learn how to increase human flourishing. If Cuba has been able to achieve higher literacy rates than our own, we should study their methods and incorporate what we can into our own education system without jeopardizing our freedoms. But such growth is impossible without first acknowledging that we Americans have something to learn from other countries whom we disapprove of politically.
Similarly, the question of whether a revolution is really what the country wants and needs right now may sound innocuous on the surface, but it strikes at the heart of the divisions within the Democratic Party today. Trump is a departure from the norm, according to liberals. Do the Democrats want to restore the tried and true with all of its known problems or usher in the new and bold with all of its unknown problems?
Over and above the substance, the spectacle of the debate itself oozed with irony. That there was no in-person audience brought a level of clarity to the discourse that was at once refreshing and boring. Americans are so ready for a Jerry Springer that we can no longer pay attention to Mr. Rogers. Audiences in debates have always been a point of contention. But their absence, or at least the value of the audience’s silence, has been less discussed. Perhaps the first true example of the power of silence on a debate comes from the French revolution when the power of public audiences or lack thereof to shape debates on the floor of the National Assembly first became apparent. Famously, before the arrival of the hated King to give a speech just before his downfall, Mirabeau asked the National Assembly to refrain from voicing their disapproval in the hall. So, in an act of malicious compliance, the assembly members remained completely silent, which gave the impression that the public was not just angry with the king, but so angry they were speechless. After witnessing the event, Mirabeau said, “le silence du peuple est la leçon des rois.” The silence of the people is the lesson of kings.
Of course, last night’s debate enjoyed such silence because there was no audience. It was perhaps foreshadowing of what political events of the future could look like if the coronavirus is more effective at its deadly task than we hope. But the value of silence last night was as apparent as it was for King Louis XVI, namely that silence is clarifying. A politician cannot drum up the passions of an audience to hide their own flaws if the audience remains silent. Politicians who appear so often before crowds or in closely controlled interviews may continue thoughts that would have otherwise been interrupted by boos or shocked reactions from journalists. In a vacuum, with only the moderators and the opponents to gather immediate and direct feedback from, politicians can be examined more authentically. With less noise in the data and with more time to weigh one point against the next, voters can see their candidates more transparently.
The debate last night is unlikely to change the race in any significant way. Ratings were low, and neither candidate exposed the other as the lesser choice. In fact, both candidates seemed weaker than Americans would probably have hoped. Biden slurred his words and Sanders rambled. Both had trouble completing sentences and finishing their thoughts. Several exchanges were not so much a conversation as a series of half-formed clauses, interrupted by constant hedging and reframing. Rarely did Sanders return to complete his initial point after setting off down a tangent with the cliched transitional phrases, “but make no mistake,” and “let us be clear,” and, “and by the way...” If anything, last night’s debate demonstrated both of the candidates’ flaws more clearly than any previous debate had, which will only make this choice harder. In that sense, it was as unhelpful as all of the previous debates.
That being said, Americans should not forget last night’s debate. On the contrary, we should study it. The fact that there was no audience, the smaller venue, the reduced number of candidates on the stage - all of these factors combined to elevate the debate above all of the rest in terms of substance and intelligibility. By many metrics, last night’s debate was the best political debate at the presidential level this country has seen in 5 years. It was substantive, clear, and free of distraction. In that sense, it was better than all of the 2016 debates and the previous 10 Democratic primary debates. It should be held up as a model for all future political debates in America. The sad circumstances in which the debate occurred should not prevent us from carrying these lessons we learned from it forward into future debates.