SALT LAKE CITY — Want some perspective on Tuesday night’s so-called presidential debate? Try watching the first Nixon-Kennedy debate from approximately the same date in 1960.
You need only watch a few minutes. I’ll give you a taste.
John F. Kennedy, speaking uninterrupted by his opponent, says in his opening statement, “We can no longer afford to be second best. I want people all over the world to look to the United States again, to feel that we’re on the move, to feel that our high noon is in the future.”
A few minutes later, Richard Nixon responds, again uninterrupted, “The things that Sen. Kennedy has said, many of us can agree with.”
Sixty years later, the most memorable line in a similar debate between men vying to lead the world’s strongest nation may have been, “Will you shut up, man?”
How did we get here from there? More to the point, how did we become a nation of people who would tolerate what they watched Tuesday night?
Sure, you might want to fall asleep watching the 1960 debate. Maybe that says something about us, as well.
For the record, much of the world is wondering these same things. Fredrik Johansson, of Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet, wrote on Wednesday, “The first presidential debate was an unworthy event that said more about where American political culture finds itself than about what the candidates will do.”
In England’s The Guardian, Moira Donegan said, “The coarseness, dishonesty, and grandstanding on display was a mockery of the dignity of the electoral process and a slap in the face to the Americans whose lives will be shaped by the actions of the next president.”
If our form of government is truly representative, then we, the people, must take some responsibility for this.
You may argue that the 1960 election was cloaked by a veneer of civility that hid important truths. Both men eventually became president. Kennedy had disturbing personal flaws, as evidenced by dalliances with, among others, a 19-year-old White House intern. Nixon resigned in disgrace.
Maybe too much was kept silent in those days. But that veneer at least kept the nation focused on questions that really mattered, as much as it may have helped find common ground and compromise solutions.
But there is a veneer in place today, too. It is the one that protects the myth that Americans are so hopelessly divided they will never see eye to eye. It’s safeguarded by all those screaming voices on Facebook and Twitter who hurl insults at each other, and by candidates and parties that often find endless divisions to be better for fundraising than serious efforts at finding solutions.
Plenty of evidence suggests we really aren’t that far apart, at least as long as we can keep the donkeys and elephants out of the discussion.
Studies by the More in Common Foundation have shown that large percentages of people actually agree on solutions to problems. The forward to its report on America’s polarized landscape says, “We have found a large segment of the population whose voices are rarely heard above the shouts of the partisan tribes.” The nation’s polarization, the forward says, is not “insoluble.”
Another study by Carlee Beth Hawkins and Brian A Nosek suggests people can see common solutions until they are told that one idea or the other is being promoted by either a Democrat or a Republican. Then they hunker down in their favorite camp.
Yet another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that party affiliation is more important than the merits of an argument for or against a position.
That study noted how former President Barack Obama said he could quote a Republican policy verbatim from the party’s platform and immediately find opposition from 80% to 90% of Republicans, simply because “I said it.”
Tuesday’s debate, then, was more of a red team vs. blue team pep rally than a presentation of ideas to be carefully evaluated by voters.
So, how do we get back from here? Perhaps the only way is for each individual of that vast, silent middle to reject the shouts, the insults, the childish behavior by politicians one step at a time; to become politically involved; to denounce politics as entertainment and focus on issues and solutions.
If most people in America really want this, some politician somewhere will discover that the path to power runs right through them.