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Why the Technocratic Deep State Hates Debates

Every four years, we elect a person to the Oval Office. Swampy apparatchiks want you to forget that.

Calls are mounting quickly to cancel the 2020 presidential debates, three of which are scheduled to take place between September 29th and October 22nd.

Some hide behind claims that coronavirus concerns make the staging of a debate too risky, though these are generally the same people who have endorsed mass protests and riots for the past three months straight. Others, such as former Clinton White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, advise that “trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win.”

In general, the consensus both Right and Left is that this is a position of fear: either fear that three controlled debates will be the final straw to break the COVID camel’s back, or fear that Biden might be trounced in a toe-to-toe contest with Trump—both on stage and, consequently, at the polls.

But there is more going on here. The more extreme debate-skeptic proposals tip the Left’s hand, and reveal concerns far more substantial than Joe Biden’s apparent senility. Funnily enough, so do the less extreme proposals: we ought to pay attention to the compromises offered, and consider what they reveal about the cancel camp’s priorities.

Just look at Alex Shephard’s anti-debate diatribe at The New Republic. Its headline leaves little doubt about its goal: “Let’s Cancel Presidential Debates Forever.” Forever. This isn’t about protecting the political prospects of one nominee who struggles to project a strong (or even competent) image. This is about fundamentally changing the way we elect presidents, and the way we conduct our politics.

This may seem like an overreaction, especially given the televised debate’s relatively recent arrival to the American political scene: everyone remembers from history class that the first were held in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy; some readers may even remember watching the 1960 debates live. But what this late date fails to tell us is that TV debates, while new in form, are merely the modern means of delivering something that the American electorate has always needed: a reminder that politics is a flesh-and-blood affair, that in the president we are electing not a party but a person.

We hear a lot of panicked rhetoric about personalism in politics these days. The supposed cult of personality built up around Donald Trump is viewed with a kind of fearful horror, thought to be a novelty and hoped to be an aberration. But American politics—especially presidential politics—have been intensely personal from their earliest days. The first presidents, up through Monroe, were giants: men whose names were known, whose personalities were legendary, whose fierce performances in the debates on the Constitution would all have been remembered on the days of their elections.

Much of the mid-19th century, too, was marked by presidents whose personalities—and histories of conflict—defined both their campaigns and their tenures. Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, and even the short-lived Harrison (all but the politico Polk accomplished military men), were all elected far more on their reputations than on any platform. This is all to say that a politics of spectacle, performance, and persona is not a novel outgrowth of cable news and TV debates: it is a grand American tradition as old as the presidency itself, and inseparable from it.

In fact, it was really only in the second half of the 19th century, as the power and scope of the federal government expanded rapidly, that the presidency became more about the party than the person. It was then that the first generation of American technocrats found their way into the Oval Office: men like Grover Cleveland and Chester Arthur, who were capable policy-men and administrators, but who would have mustered roughly the same energy on a debate stage as a wet mop.

With a few deviations whose last name was Roosevelt—who were actually not so much deviations as combinations, simultaneously policy-men and personalists—this pattern continued almost uninterrupted until 1952, when national hero Dwight Eisenhower—a man with practically no policy at all—swept the electoral vote against technocrat Adlai Stevenson.

It was immediately after Eisenhower’s eight years in the Oval that Richard Nixon, his vice president, was defeated narrowly by the charismatic Jack Kennedy—not coincidentally, in a campaign that included the first-ever televised debates. Suddenly, with the back-to-back election of two charismatic figures over two policy-minded ones—Eisenhower had defeated Stevenson again by an even wider margin in 1956—America had reentered an age of presidential politics defined by the personal.

Once televised debates became a permanent fixture of the campaign in 1976, this historic transition became even more pronounced. In virtually every election since, the candidate who has won the election has been the obvious winner in the debates. This is not to say that elections have been won because debates have been won; it is simply to observe that the factors that contribute to debate victory—sharpness, image, projection of strength, etc.—have become decisive factors in our presidential elections, and the debates provide the people with an opportunity to evaluate candidates based on these factors.

Why the opposition, then? The personalist revival has been rising in tandem with an inverse trend: the constant expansion of powerful party establishments, and the extension of entrenched ideologues into nonprofits, into academia, into every corner of government and public life. This establishment, on the left and right, is the cozy home of the technocrats of our time. Call it the swamp, call it the deep state, call it whatever—this blob of technocratic and bureaucratic power is a serious counterweight to power of the chief executive, and not by accident. And in 2020, both the presidency and the so-called deep state are just about as powerful as ever.

Establishment pol Joe Biden’s primary win over the dully demagogic Bernie Sanders might be considered an intraparty victory of the technocratic element over the personalist. Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the GOP is exactly the opposite. In order to secure their measured success and expand it into a long-term political program, progressive technocrats must defend Biden from Trump’s tornado of personal energy.

Protecting Biden from debate, even catapulting him into the Oval Office—these are just steps along the way. “Cancel presidential debates forever” points to a much more ambitious agenda: one in which platforms, establishments, data—a billion things that make no sense and bear no interest for the average American voter—eclipse the presentation and persuasion of a bona fide human being as a candidate for office. In turn, these things will eclipse the importance of the person even in the office. The new technocrats want FDR’s administrative leviathan, without his human touch.

This is made apparent by the plans offered in the name of compromise. There is a massive push from the left to institute some form of real-time fact-checking if the debates are to go on at all. We cannot have any illusions about just whom a quasi-factual live analysis, overseen by a less-than-impartial mainstream media, would serve to benefit. It would not, as its proponents suggest, offer an unbiased counterbalance to erroneous claims by the debaters. It would simply offer an inhuman, coldly analytical counterbalance to the human narrative presented by the candidates. That’s a hell of a win for the technocrats.

Or we can just get rid of audiences, for good. Shephard writes that the presence of an audience contributing authentic reactions as the debate proceeds “underlines the fact that what is happening is a spectacle, not anything of substance.” Like Walter Mondale’s claim, brought up in a 1984 debate, that “President Reagan offers showmanship, not leadership,” it’s a silly mistake to think that the two are mutually exclusive—and it’s suggestive of a dry, sterile view of politics and human affairs on the part of the accuser. It has apparently not occurred to these people that a quadrennial contest for occupation of the most powerful office in the history of mankind might just be worthy of a little spectacle, a little drama, a little fight—and that some members of the public might be entitled to a ringside seat.

The anti-personalists would be perfectly happy to literally remove the great mass of people from this decisive moment in the political process, leaving two men alone to talk policy in an otherwise empty room, overseen by a panel of bureaucrats authorized to enforce the approved version of reality over and against any possible objections. Makes you wonder what they’ll do with the government, if we let them take a crack at it.

about the author

Declan Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University. His work has been published at National Review, Crisis, and elsewhere.

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