• The first presidential debate between US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, was a train wreck.
• Throughout the 90-minute mud fight, it seemed the two were speaking to very different audiences.
By nearly all accounts, the first presidential debate between US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, was a train wreck.
Throughout the 90-minute mud fight, it seemed to this observer from 13,000km away, the two were speaking to very different audiences.
The former seemed more invested in speaking to those who already support him, engaging in sloganeering that they identify with, while the latter seemed to be trying to occupy the middle ground and appeal to voters “from across the aisle”, pardon the Americanism.
This reflects how as the Republican Party has become more extreme in its rhetoric and cynical manipulation of the system, the Democrats appear to have responded by attempting to take over and hold the middle ground.
During the debate, Biden repudiated, not just the extreme rightwing race-baiting and hypocrisy, but also what Trump described as the “radical left” Green New Deal.
He seemed to also adopt some of the right-wing rhetoric that rejects systemic racism within the police, electing to refer to “bad apples” within the police force. “He just lost the radical left,” Trump kept whooping to Biden’s answers.
“When they go low, we go high,” famously declared the former First Lady Michelle Obama in her speech to the 2016 Democratic Convention, but is holding the moral high ground synonymous with holding the middle ground?
For that matter, is moving to the political centre in an effort to appeal to both sides the same thing as moderation and either an appropriate and more importantly, an effective response to extremism?
In the 1995 Oscar-winning cult classic, The Usual Suspects, the villain Keyser Soze’s alter ego, Roger 'Verbal' Kint, describes an epiphany by Hungarian thugs that “to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers.
You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't.”The debate amply demonstrates how Trump and his party have internalised the same lesson.
To his supporters and party, Trump is undoubtedly the Keyser Soze of US politics.
Driven by the singular goal of feeding his insatiable ego and the annihilation of his enemies and detractors, his norm-shattering willingness to do what the other guy wouldn’t have cowed the Republican Party, surrounded him with an unshakable loyal base and stupefied his adversaries both in the opposition party and in the media.
He has become, to paraphrase Kint, “a myth, a spook story that Republicans tell their politicians at night. ‘Rat on your party and Donald Trump will get you’".
It has led to a cynical, all-or-nothing, no-holds-barred politics by the Republican Party, excusing abominable behaviour and legitimising brazen hypocrisies, the most recent being the Republican-controlled Senate’s decision to entertain a vote over a Trump nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, after denying his predecessor a similar pick in identical circumstances.
As right-wing extremism has energised left-wing radicalism, many Democrat politicians, including Biden, have responded by reaffirming the very rules and norms whose rejection is key to Trump’s success.
They have basically settled for a centrist, conservative strategy that sadly reaffirms the status quo rather than challenges it.
Research has shown that, even in two-party systems, parties do not converge on the centre of the left-right ideological spectrum but instead tend to adopt positions that are either more extreme or sometimes more moderate than those of their supporters.
In 2005, Norman Schofield and Itai Sened proposed that in a competition for votes between parties where there is a marked difference in “valence” — voter perceptions of party leaders' attributes as opposed to their policies (think stuff like competence, morality and integrity) — the parties with lower valence tend to be pushed to the extreme, while those with comparatively high valence will occupy the centre.
In short, Trump and Biden move to the right of their supporters.
However, for Biden and the Democrats, while this right-wing shift may result in more votes, it is also a fundamental concession of the argument.
It makes a radical change of the sort many in the US seem to think it needs all the more difficult.
Such pandering to the centre should be distinguished from moderation that is more than mere weak-willed opportunism or appeasement.
As Aurelian Craiutu, author of Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, notes, moderation “constitutes a coherent and diverse tradition of thought… In addition to its ethical meaning, it also has a distinctively political vision."
True moderates may swim against the popular tide within their parties, but it is always to seek principled compromises that preserve integrity, not capitulation in the service of expediency.
They are not neutral in the face of moral disputes.
Moderates do not seek compromises with thugs, even when they come in the guise of President. They do not get baited or bullied into repeating racist dog whistles –“law and order with justice”- because they are deathly afraid of being portrayed as weak.
Neither are moderates so invested in popularity that their reaction to a President telling a violent, racist group to “stand by” is a grin and a chuckle.
So yes. The Democrats' centrism may win them the election and the White House.
But unless they have the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t, in this case, to stand on principle, they will have already lost the war.