The Dread Before Debate

This is the unofficial start of a great and terrible journey.

Some things matter even though they’re stupid.

The ACT. 80s action movies. The application form you have to fill out even after uploading your resume. Two-night-20-candidate-primary-debates.

It’s stupid, what NBC is putting on TV Wednesday and Thursday night, because that’s too many people talking at the “same” time for each to give a fair impression of themselves and their ideas, let alone engage with each other in actual debate. It’s also possible that the ability or inability to do well in a debate – however we decide to measure that – is a poor indication of what kind of president a person would make.

But it matters, as primary debates have the power to affect voters’ decisions, especially early and in a crowded field. It matters, because it helps winnow the field and it informs how the media will cover the candidates.

And so, even though it’s stupid, I’m going to watch it. Both nights. Alone. Probably beginning to end. Perhaps I’ll splurge on a cheap bottle of wine.

I called it a clown car when the Republicans did it, and it’s a clown car this time, too, but now it’s my clown car (and these clowns exhibit a general level of competence and decency).

If it was just stupid, I wouldn’t be so worked up about it, because then I could just ignore it if I don’t like it. The stupidity of the Grammys holds the potential to baffle and infuriate, but since they don’t actually matter it’s not the end of the world when Taylor Swift wins Album of the Year for 1989. On the other hand, the stupid Oscars do matter, and so it’s a travesty when Green Book wins Best Picture. This upcoming unwieldy, ungainly, unholy debate with all its pageantry and unrealistic performativity is stupid, but it matters.

Again, it matters because the field of candidates is massive and needs to shrink somehow, and this is the way we’ve decided to do it, because if there’s one thing Americans love in their government and politics, it’s nostalgic outdatedness. One way or another we need to eliminate contestants, and short of a Michael Scott “Beach Games” style competition, this is as good a way as we’ve got. Imperfect as it is, these debates will have an impact on who becomes a serious candidate going forward, and that, obviously, matters.

Rather than tune out the debates and their subsequent coverage, I’ll engage with them because they are important, but by doing so I will be subjecting myself to the beast of political primary season, which, like working with the Flying Dutchman and daytime television, is grueling, mind-numbing, and repetitive. By watching on Wednesday and Thursday, and then, inevitably, following along with the reaction, I will be entering into something that will make me confused, frustrated, and anxious. This first debate will signal the start of my engagement with this process, and, therefore, I’m dreading it.

I’m dreading having to watch as petty attacks and counterattacks unfold, faux pas become national scandal, backlash comes for the backlash, willful misrepresentation runs wild, and Joe Biden inexplicably maintains frontrunner status. I’m also dreading, albeit with a sort of guarded optimism, watching these twenty people perform for me as a yet undecided person. I don’t know now which one of these people I like the most, or who my first and second backups are, but they’re going to come from this field. I’ll be interacting with the one before I know who they are, like the first few weeks of Hogwarts or Christian college. What if I come to love a candidate only to see them fall in the polls? What if I set myself against another and then they emerge as the only viable alternative to one I dislike even more?

There will be more debates, and I’ll do more research and take the isidewith quiz, but this first impression still carries a lot of weight.

But that’s all just the primary – I’m also faced with the reality that one of the people – and it may not be my first, second, or even third choice – will be the Democratic nominee and the person I will support in the general election. This is it; this slate of twenty people holds the name of the nation’s hope for decency, competency, and the fundamentals of our republic, and Larry Bird’s not walking through that door.

Which brings me to what I’m dreading most about this first official step in really getting to know this field of candidates: whatever happens, for better and worse, in this Democratic primary, millions of people, including many of my family and friends, are going to vote for Donald Trump.

It doesn’t really matter who “we” decide on. It doesn’t matter how qualified and civil that person is, how well-reasoned and well-intentioned their policies are, or how patriotic and inspiring they act. We can put all these people under the microscope and suss out the “best” candidate and proudly present them before the world in Milwaukee next summer, and they might just be our sacrificial lamb before the Republican Molech and the devastating weapon of the Electoral College. Even if Trump is defeated, the fact remains that people I know to be thinking, feeling individuals will have decided long before that the candidate representing my views is inferior to that guy. All the discourse, base and elevated alike, put into the Democratic primary will be dross before them. They might have hardly given any thought to the differences between Trump’s potential opponents.

This is how the rest of the Eastern Conference felt about LeBron all those years, isn’t it?

On a personal, selfish level, I’ll admit I dread the possibility of going all in on a candidate and finding myself in a place where I really believe they are the Prince/Princess Who Was Promised, buying their merch and touting their policies and maybe even doing some actual on the ground work to flip Wisconsin, only to see them lose to a man who I still can’t believe is President even though I actually can believe it because I have studied American history but you know what I mean. But on a greater, existential level, it’s just a real bummer. The most “electable” candidate might get nominated and that soul-selling will be for naught, or the most inspiring might get nominated and that ambition will be punished.

And it’ll make this entire thing, beginning with this ridiculous debate, seem all that more stupid.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


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