I was never very interested in politics. Aside from being taught it was not polite to discuss politics in social settings, the subject never genuinely interested me all that much. I never really saw the point in arguing with someone who was unlikely to change his or her political views anyways. That is, until this year. With everything at stake right now, there isn’t much option for someone as interested in human rights and social justice as me to not be actively engaged in politics. There is simply too much at risk right now to not care about the state of the United States political system. So, in an honest attempt to witness and take place in the election this year, I watched the first 2020 presidential debate. I was hoping to glean something about both candidates by watching the debate, an event that even those least involved in politics can watch to get a sense of the political atmosphere and personal beliefs of the two rival candidates and their parties. Unfortunately for my best friend Hannah, (whose plans for the evening involved spending time with me until I cancelled last minute in order to watch the debate) I think I would have been better off spending the evening with her than watching what I personally believe can only be loosely defined as a debate.
I sat in my mom’s room as we watched the debate unfold before us and witnessed it all in horror and shock. How can anyone in the United States right now expect to have a civil political discussion with his or her peers when the top two 2020 presidential candidates can’t? Many have called this most recent presidential debate one of the most embarrassing they have witnessed in their entire lives and I think it is important we unpack why. 2020 has been, for lack of better term, a total and undeniable dumpster fire. As a nation, we have watched our family members die from a novel deadly disease for which there is no current known cure. We have said our last goodbye to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins over facetime. We have isolated ourselves from the world in order to keep ourselves and others safe. We have seen some of the worst police brutality in 21st century America this year. We have seen our brothers and sisters lose their eyesight from being shot by rubber bullets during Black Lives Matter protests. We have seen local businesses shut down because of the pandemic and we have seen family members succumb to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and depression because so many of us were forced to stay inside and avoid human contact for months on end. We have all witnessed ugly, demeaning, and hateful speech on the internet because of rising racial and political tensions. It has been an incredibly tumultuous and taxing year for just about everyone. I think that a lot of us, including myself, were looking to Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump to let us know that, however hard it might be for any one of us right now, they would keep the country together for a brighter future.
However, that is not what the American people got. What we got was a high-school-level battle of insults and interrupting, with President Donald Trump being the executor of several low, personal jabs at Vice President Joe Biden. Though there has been much debate over who “won” the debate, I am inclined to believe that, as upsetting as it was to see Vice President Joe Biden stoop to the level of President Trump on several occasions, President Trump was the initiator of the majority of the bickering that ensued during the debate. Neither candidate let the other speak for what seemed like any appropriate amount of time on any given topic. Several times, Chris Wallace had to yell in order to announce the end of segments and was forced to assign two minutes of uninterrupted (yes, he did have to emphasize that the two minutes would be uninterrupted) speech to each candidate. Watching this all happen, I felt frustrated and sad. Were these two men engaging in petty arguments and name-calling the best America had to offer during the devastating year that was 2020? Was this debate indicative of what the political future of America would look like? After the debate, I spent the next few days thinking about what the nature of the debate meant to the American people. I eventually came to the bitterly dismal conclusion that it meant absolutely nothing.
When I was asked to formulate my reaction to the debate, I thought “How can I think about the debates from the lens of an English Literature major when absolutely nothing was said? What literature was there to react to?” And then it hit me – the interrupting, the name calling, and overall immature behavior on behalf of both presidential candidates was not all that different than what I have been witnessing from my friends and family since April of this year. They had stooped to our level. They had stopped listening to each other for fear that in a battle of pride versus fact, fact would win.
What I personally think most of us can take from watching the first presidential debate of 2020 is that we could all be a bit better about listening to one another. During this unprecedented time of fear and uncertainty, we are all scared. We are scared of what the future holds and what that means to us as average American citizens. And what we need most during this hate-filled, angry, defensive time of heightened emotions is to sit down and talk with each other. If you do not feel like your black brothers and sisters have a reason to feel threatened by police, sit down and ask them why they might feel as though they do. If you do not feel the need to wear a mask in public, sit down with someone who thinks you should, and ask them why they feel that way. Remember that there is no “correct” way to respond to the pandemic, police brutality, looting, rioting, and general violence 2020 has been host to. Remember that you do not control the emotions of others, nor do they control yours. All that is left for us to do as a collective people is to respect that 2020 has been a time of exceptional pain for many Americans – and then talk about it. Ask your friends and family how they are doing. Check in on your coworkers. Respect the cultures and wishes of those different from you. Make sure that in the next coming month, as all of us jointly rush to the polls to make our final decision, you understand that no matter who becomes the next president, we are all in this together. 2021 will be the year of fixing. Of building our lives back up to what they once were. Of making amends. And we cannot successfully build any sort of promising future if we act as the two 2020 presidential candidates did, without regard to what the other had to say. Because we must listen to one another if 2021 will see the reconstruction of a changed (if not a little battered) American society.