Today’s age is one in which personality dominates politics. The media breathlessly covers every Trump tweet, and Trumpian insults have quickly become America’s shared political language. Tuesday night, though, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders showed us a different way of doing politics.
On CNN, the two senators debated issues related to the Affordable Care Act in front of a live audience at George Washington University. The debate remained issue-focused as Cruz and Sanders met on the battlefield of ideas to discuss the best path forward for the American people.
The ACA debate on CNN stands in stark contrast to the media’s coverage of the 2016 primary and general election. Rather than encouraging political figures to sling mud at one another as they did so often over the last year, the moderators made sure to keep the debaters focused on ideas.
Not only does the debate do a public service, it also dominated ratings Tuesday night. According to Nielsen ratings, CNN beat Fox in the 25 – 54 demographic for the first time this year. The American people — especially young people — are hungry for this kind of engagement, and they will reward networks and news outlets for giving it to them.
Politics in a republic is an inherently deliberative activity. Washington, D.C. is meant to be the place where the American people gather, through their representatives, to discuss and make law. The Founders intended politics to be based on goodwill, social trust, and virtuous patriotism.
During the 2016 election, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both abandoned that vision. They painted an ugly picture of the other side — “nasty women,” “bad hombres,” “a basket of deplorables.” Going back into the Obama years, liberals frequently lamented backwards conservatives who “clung to their guns and their Bibles,” and conservatives whined constantly about “the roots of Obama’s rage.”
This kind of division is by no means new to our republic. In his Farewell Address, George Washington wrote, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge… is itself a frightful despotism… Sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
In his 1976 book on the antebellum era, “The Impending Crisis,” historian David Potter argued that one of the reasons that the Civil War came is that Southerners and Northerners both responded not to the actual positions of the opposing party, but rather the worst possible stereotype of their respective positions. The country was divided into the very factions Washington so feared, and those factions tragically tore the nation apart.
Today, the soundbite culture that has developed thanks to omnipresent social media and a 24-hour news cycle has empowered those “prevailing factions,” both during the Obama years and during the 2016 election. Instead of responding to one another, the factions of the right and of the left have both resorted to fear-mongering.
While presidential politics has been rapidly descending into the trap which Potter described over the last 13 years, the Cruz-Sanders debate shows that there is still hope for reversing the 21st century’s ugly political Balkanization.
When our statesmen focus on the common good and a shared patriotism, they elevate the tone of the national conversation so that the best ideas — independent of preexisting prejudices and the spirit of faction — can carry the day.
Cruz and Sanders represent two entirely different political philosophies, and they did not avoid making strong arguments and debating their differences. But, they remained civil and respectful and concerned for the good of the American people.
The media ought to encourage events like these instead of incentivizing incendiary tweets. The American people’s political leaders need to engage their opponents, rather than treat them like enemies in a bitter war.