This may shock my readers, but I have managed not to watch any of the debates yet in this political cycle. I don’t generally find them particularly edifying, and this cycle I knew that would be especially true.
I’ll be watching tonight, because I was invited to an event with post-show commentary including TAC‘s Scott McConnell. But I’m still not expected to learn anything important, or to enjoy the spectacle, because debates aren’t aimed at me, anymore than political ads or direct mail or any other campaign technique. I’m a high-information voter — and, rarer still, a relatively unmoored voter, ideologically-speaking, who is also relatively high-information. Literally nobody is trying to reach me. There aren’t enough of me to matter, and we take way too much time and energy to woo.
I say I’m relatively unmoored, but I’m not confused about what I’m hoping for in this election. I am firmly convinced that Trump would be an epically disastrous President, whereas Clinton will be somewhere between pretty bad and pretty good depending on circumstances. I want to see him lose — and lose badly. So I’ll be watching the debate in somewhat the same spirit as Clinton’s supporters, rooting for her to “win.”
But only somewhat. Some of her supporters seem to be hoping that she’ll unveil a new personality; others that she’ll “destroy” Donald Trump; others that she’ll find some new way of selling the basket of traditional Democratic remedies as a good fit for this election cycle’s problems. None of these things are going to happen. Clinton did need to re-introduce herself to the American people — indeed, I suggested how she might best do that — but that opportunity was largely missed, and in any event a new personality is not something that either candidate can actually deploy; they can only be the best version of themselves. Leading with the standard basket of Democratic Party goodies, meanwhile, is basically a gamble that a majority wants to stay the course we’ve been on, only with a less-popular and less-trusted captain helming the ship. I don’t think anyone in the Clinton camp feels entirely comfortable putting all their chips on that square.
As for “destroying” Trump: the problem Clinton has here is not merely that it’s easier said than done, but that the way her campaign has been trying to do this is by deeming Trump “unacceptable” — racist, sexist, xenophobic, bad for children and other living things. In other words: they are trying to convince people that they don’t really have a choice in this election. They have to vote for Clinton. But people really don’t like to be told that they don’t have a choice. Indeed, if they don’t really have a choice, why hold an election at all?
Which is, dismayingly, what a lot of alarmed observers are starting to wonder. Whether they blame the media or the GOP or the electorate itself, a rising chorus of commentators seems to be asking: if our electoral process produces a President Trump, isn’t that prima facie evidence that the process is broken in a fundamental way, and that democracy has gone too far?
Of course, there are alternatives to democracy. You can vest power in an economic oligarchy, or in a credentialed clerisy, or in a vanguard party bureaucracy. You can make the military guardians of the constitution — there are all kinds of options. But they all amount to rule by force or threat of force. Only democracy gives a clear mechanism for demonstrating to the people that the government they have is one they chose, and thereby move the threat of force a little further away from likelihood. That’s not worth giving up on petulantly or cavalierly.
To achieve that goal, any party in a democracy needs to be able to speak to the people as the people, and in a language the people understands. Not the language the party wants to use, or the language they are most comfortable with: the language the people understands.
That’s really the test for Hillary Clinton tonight. If she can’t do that, it doesn’t really matter why or whose fault it is. In a debate, the judge is always right — and the judge is the American electorate.
Trump won the Republican primaries fundamentally because the GOP leadership lost the ability to speak to its own voters. If he wins the general election, it’ll be because the Democratic party has similarly lost the ability to speak to the country as a whole. That is not the most important skill a party — or a President — needs in order to govern well. But it is the most important skill a party — and a President — needs in order to govern legitimately.
I really, really hope Hillary Clinton demonstrates that skill tonight.