The President of the United States has historically been regarded as the most powerful individual in the world, and that perception holds true in many ways today. Thus, one would expect the process of deciding upon a president who will best lead America and constructively influence world relations to be taken very seriously — at least, it is taken seriously by concerned voters. So far in this presidential campaign many of the candidates have behaved in a way that reflects an utter disregard for the importance of the office they are pursuing.
The candidates, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, undoubtedly understand in their own minds the responsibility of the role they are vying for. Rather, the issue lies in the fact that the campaigns they present to the public are not constructed with the nuances of their policies and the ethical reasoning behind their conservatism or progressivism, but rather the façades of their expertly crafted personas.
Very few of us will ever have the pleasure (or, depending on the outcome of the 2016 race, the misfortune) of meeting a president face-to-face, and thus we are significantly less affected by the personality of the individual than we are by their policies about education, healthcare, the distribution of income, immigration and foreign policy. In electing a president, U.S. citizens would be better prepared to make a decision that represents their legitimate interests if the candidates were characterized by their policies, not their hair color, age, religion or gender.
I blame the candidates, not the media, because even when given the opportunity to speak directly to the public, the candidates’ comments often deteriorate into a battle of cheap wit and irrelevant personal attacks, as they did in the recent GOP debate. The conversation began with policy, facilitated by moderators who sought to begin a real discussion. The candidates then managed to expertly deteriorate into an exchange of ad hominem attacks. The topic of financial management ended with Marco Rubio telling Trump he’d be “selling watches in Manhattan” without the wealth he inherited. Discussion of insurance proposals turned to childish bicker about who repeats himself more. The conversation on immigration ended with Rubio calling Trump a “lousy businessman.” Cruz told Trump he could “get back on [his] meds now,” the response to which was “you’re the basket case.” Trump concluded the whole debate by remarking, “This guy’s a choke artist, and this guy’s a liar” referring to Rubio and Cruz respectively.
In their own rallies following the debate, personal attacks ranged in content from the puddles of sweat that Rubio apparently leaves at the lectern to the manner of Trump’s application of makeup on his mustache (what mustache?).
Americans deserve a higher standard of political debate and professionalism.
Yet it is not just with frequent ad hominem attacks that candidates let down viewers and constituents, but in their aversion to critical questioning and public scrutiny. At a recent Hillary Clinton rally, a U.S. veteran was escorted out by security for questioning Clinton’s alleged lies regarding the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. The veteran invoked the belief that U.S. citizens, and the families of the deceased, deserved the truth, and his passive, non-violent speech was effectively met with a gag order. It isn’t hard to imagine the circumstances under which people with different views (or perhaps just different ethnicities) contrary to the majority at Trump rallies are ejected in a similar fashion.
In silencing opposition and discounting diversity of political belief and affiliation, candidates not only act against the spirit of the First Amendment, but they injure the quality of the American public discourse, which is essential for a functional democracy.
This presidential race needs to be refocused and refined. Policy needs to be the topic of the campaign, and on a deeper level than repetitive references to “the wall” and taxing the “CEOs of Wall Street.” After all, it is policy, not personality, and free and multilateral debate of policy that will shape the lives of Americans and the global position of America over the next four years.
Focusing on the substantive details of an argument, rather than obsessing over the character of the person or party presenting it, is an ideal that we too, as Princetonians, should strive to hold ourselves to. Whether it is healthy debate and argument between individuals, the University and the Undergraduate Student Government, or the Black Justice League and the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, in the halls of Whig-Clio or your own dorm room, the discussion both on and off campus is more constructive when our attention is on the content. In a recent context, as we discuss the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, and the potential changes that may ensue, we must hold our focus on the merit of the arguments that our community is putting forward, not on the motivation or personal interest of the individual or group making the argument. Though one may argue that it is relevant in some ways, our debate should not be dominated by considerations of the racial demographic of BJL’s membership and accusations of racism or prejudice in the POCC’s stance. None of this directly contends with arguments on the other side, and it is in this contention that our debates will find the soundest outcomes.
This year’s campaign may not offer a lot of inspiration or exemplary conduct. Yet Princeton is an institution that is looked to as a proponent and contributor of national debate and scholarly discussion in the United States and the larger world. Though the presidential hopefuls may not be setting the best example, we can do better, for our own benefit and for the sake of sound debate.
Samuel Parsons is a freshman from Wangaratta, Australia. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.