Debates 2020

The Democratic Debates Are Downers. That's a Big Problem for All of Us.

Being relentlessly negative is no way to win votes, even against someone as dark and divisive as Donald Trump.


I found last night's Democratic presidential debate to be profoundly depressing and downbeat, yet I struggle to explain why exactly. As a small-l libertarian who is unaffiliated with any party, my vote is up for grabs and I pay attention to these sorts of events out of more than just a sense of professional responsibility. There is plenty wrong with the country, on levels big and small, and politics can—and should—address some of that.

Yet listening to the candidates last night, I mostly didn't recognize the country they were describing. They live in a world where dark, shadowy forces—billionaires, corporations, Russian operatives especially—conspire with near-perfect success to make us all poorer and sadder, dumber and sicker, more alienated and hopeless. According to the candidates, nobody can afford the doctor, college, or child care. The whole planet may be baked in a decade because of fossil fuels, but we shouldn't really talk about expanding nuclear power or even using natural gas and fracking as a bridge fuel. Sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, police violence, and more are worse than ever.

Ironically, their collective inability to see little if anything positive in contemporary America mirrors that of the man they seek to remove from power. President Donald Trump's fixations are of course different but the net effect is the same: These are the end times unless I wield power.

But being relentlessly negative is no way to unseat an incumbent president, even one as temperamental and divisive as Trump (this is the guy who invoked "American carnage" in his first inaugural and says he's been treated worse as president than good, old, shot-in-the-head Abe Lincoln). At least, it's no way to win my vote and, I suspect, the votes of the 41 percent who consider themselves independent. As CNN's Van Jones (a Democrat) put it, the level of "vitriol was very dispiriting. Tonight was dispiriting. Democrats are going to have to do better than what we saw tonight. There was nothing I saw tonight that would be able to take Donald Trump out."

As it happens, just a day before last night's debate, researchers from Tufts University and the University of Vermont announced the creation of what they're calling "xenobots,"the "world's first living, self-healing robots created from frog stem cells" that "could be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, carry medicine inside human bodies, or even travel into our arteries to scrape out plaque." Holy hell, it's like Fantastic Voyage, but without the high-grade Cold War hysteria! In profound ways, this sort of invention typifies life in the 21st century: a moment when we take life-enhancing technology for granted, surround ourselves with hot and cold streaming media that was unimaginable even a few decades ago, and, for the first time in human history, "half the world is now middle class or wealthier."

Even in a moment when military tensions are idling warm, opioids are still taking a toll, and the federal government has racked up a trillion-dollar deficit, this is a hell of a time to be alive. Forests are expanding, the amount of "stuff" we consume on a per-capita basis peaked around 2000, and infant mortality rates continue to decline, leading writer Matt Ridley to declare the 10 years that just concluded "the best decade in human history." The U.S. economy has been growing without interruption for over a decade, wage parity between women and men is growing, and the percentage of high school grads immediately attending college is at a historically high level. About "three in four adults—and the overwhelming majority of poor children—live better off than their parents after taking the rising cost of living into account," writes economist Scott Winship.

None of that made it onto the stage at last night's Democratic presidential debate, and unless it does, why would enough people vote for a Democrat to take over the country? I'm not talking about some sort of phony, upbeat, Panglossian message—the electoral equivalent of telling a woman on the street that she should smile. But if you're promising (threatening might be the better term) major transformations of the economy, health care industry, education system, and more, having a positive vision of the future rather than a punitive one seems to be a prerequisite. Yet with the possible exception of Andrew Yang, the long shot candidate who didn't make the cutoff to appear last night anyway, all of the remaining Democrats talk more about settling scores than about creating a richer, smarter, more innovative world.

About a year ago, Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), shortly after progressive Democrats unveiled the Green New Deal, a set of programs whose sponsors promised would radically transform many aspects of American life. Sensing an advantage, Trump uncorked a two-hour stemwinder that was by turns mean, nasty, funny, and, above all, optimistic about the future. I prophesied then that he might win the 2020 election because "Trump is becoming sunnier and sunnier while the Democrats are painting contemporary America as a late-capitalist hellhole riven by growing racial, ethnic, and other tensions." The president has since retreated back to his darkness and will likely stay there, especially as impeachment proceedings get underway.

But as incumbent, Trump merely has to hold onto office while his challengers need to vault into power. If last night's rhetoric is any indication, the Democrats might have one more thing to be depressed about after election day. More importantly for the rest of us, we will still be without a major political party that can paint a positive vision for the country. And voters like me will still be searching for presidential candidates for whom we can vote.