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Rejecting The Age Of The Sick Burn

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, answers questions after the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, answers questions after the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The second round of Democratic debates is over and beyond all the hot slop served up by pundits, the central question remains: Should the Democrats nominate a rousing progressive (Warren, Sanders, Harris) or a safe centrist (Biden)?

There’s no easy answer to this one. Or, to put it more affirmatively, both sides have a strong argument.

Progressives can assert that 2020 will be a base election, and that a fiery candidate with bold policies is best positioned to take on the plutocratic demagogue who occupies the Oval Office.

Pragmatists can respond by noting that the voters who are likely to tip the election don’t want radical change so much as a return to dignity and decency, and that more liberal voters will turn out in droves regardless.

... the fundamental media bias these days is conflict bias: a relentless compulsion to focus on arguments and accusations to the exclusion of shared interests.

Alas, you won’t see this kind of nuanced assessment in the debate coverage. With a certain dismal predictability, most of the post-debate stories have focused on who attacked whom.

Why? Because the fundamental media bias these days is conflict bias: a relentless compulsion to focus on arguments and accusations to the exclusion of shared interests. We’re living in the age of the sick burn.

The Democratic aspirants should call out this kind of coverage early and often. They should take every opportunity to reject the rancor that President Trump instinctively and exhaustingly exploits.

Former Vice President Joe Biden listens as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Former Vice President Joe Biden listens as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Instead, the candidates should aim their passion at the causes most Americans support, as they did in the midterms: a tax system that selects need over greed, greater access to health care and education, a climate policy based on science, sensible gun control, an immigration system that secures our borders without abusing families seeking asylum and so on.

Attacking the president (as a racist, a pathological liar, a loafer, a functional illiterate) may feel gratifying, but it’s largely redundant at this point. Better to focus on the cruelty, corruption and ineptitude of his regime, his disastrous trade wars, his broken promises, his incoherent foreign policy.

As I watch the debates, I’m eager to identify the candidates who recognize that this election isn’t about their individual fate, but about a common belief: that government should be a force for good in the lives of the disenfranchised and vulnerable.

Opinions don’t win elections. Actions do.

The candidates should also recognize the magnitude of the challenge they face. Trump claimed his party’s nomination, and eventually the presidency, because his party now openly embraces a shameless, win-at-any-cost philosophy. Foreign interference? Bring it on. Racial demagoguery? Heck yes. Voter suppression. You betcha.

But it’s not just the candidates who should be worried. It’s every American of good faith. I’ll be the first one to admit that I took democracy for granted in 2016. Like a lot of my liberal brethren, I was politically obsessed without being politically involved. I spent a lot of time mired in anguished complaint.

By 2018, I was ready to stop whining. Instead, I devoted my time to organizing writing workshops, as a way of raising money for progressive candidates and causes.

I’ll continue to watch the Democratic debates. And I’ll continue to have strong opinions about which candidates would do the most to restore our democracy — including those such as Michelle Obama who have yet to enter the fray.

But I see my role differently this election.

Our fundamental challenge as citizens of good faith is to move beyond the passive consumption of politics. Opinions don’t win elections. Actions do.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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