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The Surreal Morning After: The Current State of Civic Discourse

Assistant Editor

By Lukasz Grabowski ‘18

· Lukasz Grabowski

During a Monday lecture, it did not take long for the political science professor to get on the topic of the previous night’s presidential debate, the second of three scheduled between candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As he lectured about opposition research and the like, I felt it again, this time unmistakably - a queasy sensation in the stomach, an amorphous uneasiness. The first time had been immediately following the debate.

Somehow failing to even meet abysmally low expectations, the debate was from the start a pathetic exchange of low-blows, childish interruptions, and clumsy topic spins. While Mr. Trump was the forefront culprit, Secretary Clinton also contributed to the uncivil discourse on display. The polarizing Republican candidate has been on the defensive following last Friday’s release of a 2005 video clip exemplifying language frighteningly suggestive of sexual assault. His lukewarm apology - a whiny comment about “locker room banter” - has done little to stop the bleeding as Democrats and Republicans withdraw their support.

Amidst the mud-slinging and obsessive digging for each candidate’s greatest sins - whether real or not is seemingly a secondary concern - the public discourse surrounding the election has spawned two new, divergent groups: followers who have embraced the candidates’ low standard, and an apathetic mass who has lost the patience and will for legitimate civic discussion. The result is a fracture of the general populace’s collective power as an influential and informed political entity.

 

The first group is seen in the strain of Trump supporters who were not turned off from the candidate following the video leak. They represent the nativist and chauvinistic backbone of his roaring constituency. A recent video blog, made viral through Facebook, shows a Trump supporter ranting about political correctness being used as a weapon against the candidate. Downplaying the sexually aggressive and misogynistic comments as ‘something all guys say,’ he proceeded to list Secretary Clinton’s heinous crimes that “you won’t see on CNN”.

Amidst the mud-slinging and obsessive digging for each candidate’s greatest sins - whether real or not is seemingly a secondary concern - the public discourse surrounding the election has spawned two new, divergent groups: followers who have embraced the candidates’ low standard, and an apathetic mass who has lost the patience and will for legitimate civic discussion. The result is a fracture of the general populace’s collective power as an influential and informed political entity.

The first group is seen in the strain of Trump supporters who were not turned off from the candidate following the video leak. They represent the nativist and chauvinistic backbone of his roaring constituency. A recent video blog, made viral through Facebook, shows a Trump supporter ranting about political correctness being used as a weapon against the candidate. Downplaying the sexually aggressive and misogynistic comments as ‘something all guys say,’ he proceeded to list Secretary Clinton’s heinous crimes that “you won’t see on CNN”.

Indeed, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones: there is something to be said for valiant Clinton supporters ostracizing every word that Trump utters. After all, Secretary Clinton’s past is riddled with worrisome incidents besides the scandal involving her usage of a private email server for state affairs. To name a couple: her campaign spokeswoman and other staffers once referred to Catholics as being “severely backwards,” and her ambiguous statements about differing public and private positions further implicate her as loyal to Wall Street.

Conversely, many other people, instead of jumping into the fire, have simply stepped away. From political science lectures to chats in Brody, one can overhear the shift following the second debate: somber indignation had given way to a casual, almost comical disbelief at how far we have come. Formerly, students had concrete material to draw on for their own political discussions, but today the chatter is defined by brief exchanges regarding the day’s news cycle, bloated with more and more accusations, scandals, and “crimes”. Tied to this is a hidden acceptance, not of Mr. Trump’s comments about groping women’s genitalia or Secretary Clinton’s leaked speeches for Wall Street executives, but of the changing nature of political discussion.

We should not necessarily let either candidate off the hook for past actions, but we need to have conversations steered by things other than emotion and malign partisanship. Both mainstream media and casual political observers have chosen to participate in the spectacle of ‘mutually assured destruction’. The candidates have pocketed calculated policy prescriptions and armed themselves with an arsenal of dirt that has progressively increased in aggression and bluntness. What this ensures, particularly because these two candidates have such storied pasts, is a mutual desecration of public image - and away with it goes a clear sighted presentation of the policy positions that will drive one of the nominees as President of the United States.

The history of televised presidential debates began with the 1960 JFK-Nixon election and allowed viewers to learn more about nominees both as policy-makers through their direct responses to questions, and as individuals through their demeanor and so-called presidential presence. Mr. Trump - aided by Secretary Clinton’s inflammatory indiscretions - has almost singlehandedly wiped away that standard.

Many politically involved citizens have in fact stood up in vocal opposition to Mr. Trump’s increasingly atrocious comments and documented behavior. These are the minority we see on social media and in student organizations. Unfortunately, many of us are content in our distant, out-of-body perspective, where indignant rage has simmered down to a mere flicker of habitual grumbling.

In this election, the presumptive exemplars of America’s hopes and dreams have taken to middle school level name-calling (as has the media) instead of impassioned and informative discourse on how the country will be made to progress; it is thus no surprise that the casual observer has either disengaged from the whole thing altogether or joined the mud-slinging crusade that is further damaging the level of informal civic participation in the United States.

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