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That Wasn’t a Debate—That Was a Disgrace to Democracy, Plus, The Rituals and Spectacles of Social Self-Destruction, and How CNN Blew It

That Wasn’t a Debate—That Was a Disgrace to Democracy, Plus, The Rituals and Spectacles of Social Self-Destruction, and How CNN Blew It

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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So…how…awful…was that debate? I’ve heard it described as “horrific,” “a nightmare,” “a trainwreck,” and much more. 

So what went wrong? What didn’t, is the better question, but let’s start at the beginning, which is…

The Debate Turned Out…Exactly The Way I Worried it Would

Remember the story I told you in the last post? How I did one of these dumb debates once, only to discover, when I was a naive young guy, that it was a spectacle to be played out according to a certain script? That I was the Antagonist, and the fanatic, crackpot, extremist—he was the Protagonist?

And how I worried this debate would follow that Script of Social Collapse?

That’s exactly what happened.

Sure, Biden gave a “poor performance.” But it wasn’t…so bad, if you ask me. His delivery was weak, because he was clearly ill, and that’s forgivable. But his answers, substantively, were mostly good, and if we’re thinking people, well, our job is to focus on substance. 

And yet that “poor performance” was only half the story, if even that. The real story, if you ask me, was the astounding job the moderators did. As in, they didn’t do one. They didn’t…fact-check…didn’t prevent any lies…didn’t stop any disinformation…didn’t even interrupt Trump, for heaven’s sake, when he made personal attacks.

For me? Breaking point was when Trump called Biden, literally, a “Manchurian candidate,” and said something like, “He’s been installed by China.” 

Dead silence from CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

Dead silence! That’s…crazy, my friends. Really. That line is a) obviously false b) disinformation c) a personal attack. Any moderator in even a grade-school level debate should have interjected here. And so should CNN’s have. “There’s no evidence of that,” or, “Please, no personal attacks, we’re debating issues,” or, “If you have any evidence for that allegation, please provide it, and if you don’t, please retract that statement.”

This debate was a disgrace, because it wasn’t one. I don’t love Biden, I’m not a super fan, and you can easily see that just by perusing the archives. But…

Democracy Deserved Better Than This Spectacle of Self-Destruction

Even my kid sis sort of gargle-chortled out with startled laughter at Biden’s sort of stunned expression. And I said to her, look, if I was doing a debate like that, and the moderators didn’t interrupt or interject once, and let the other guy keep on getting away with lie after lie, personal attack after attack, I’d also look incredulous after a while.

It’s easy to fault Biden, and no, he didn’t do a great job, and his team—we’ll come back to this—should have done the obvious thing, which was cancel the debate if Biden was ill. And yet we should also be decent and thoughtful enough to see that Biden’s answers, by and large, were pretty good, even if his delivery was weak, as in, literally hoarse at times.

But this debate didn’t end up a train wreck because of Joe Biden. It ended up something even worse than a train wreck, and let me first point out what that is: an historic failure, at a moment of democracy’s gravest peril.

And that’s CNN’s fault.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, should even think of this as a debate. A debate is when sides oppose one another, and try to argue with facts and reason and logic, over what’s true or not. But when one side isn’t concerned with any of that, and just wants to steamroll over truth, and those who’ve organized the debate, and have agreed to moderate it, let that happen, it isn’t a debate, any more than me slapping you in the face over and over again is a relationship.

So if it wasn’t a debate, what was it? Something more like a propaganda spectacle. Maybe political theater, though that’s too kind a word—perhaps a more appropriate one is a license to lie, handed over by CNN. It was the sort of stunt we see in genuinely authoritarian societies, if anything, or pretty close to it—what a Potemkin village is to a city, this was to a genuine debate.

Democracy deserved way, way better than this, and we should all be wondering what the hell just happened here.

CNN clearly made some kind of executive decision, at the very top levels, not to moderate this debate at all, and let anything, and I mean anything, go—not even just disinformation, or worse, lies, but right down to vulgar personal attacks. There was clearly a policy not to interrupt at all, no matter what, and so Bash and Tapper were silent after asking questions.

Why would they do that? After all, knowing anything at all about Trump is to understand such a policy would inherently bias the debate—which wouldn’t even be one anymore, because what’s one without moderation, fact-checking, stopping attacks—for Trump, who wouldn’t shut up if aliens showed up and begged him, for the sake of the cosmos, to just give it a rest for a minute.

Why would they do that, if they didn’t want to create just this mess? I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, but this? This was a spectacle they should use in journalism and media schools forevermore—even grade schools—to illustrate how not to run a debate. One answer, of course, is ratings, another is profit, and another is power. I don’t know the answer, I just know: this was an historic disgrace, perhaps one of the worst failings I’ve ever seen at a media organization (and I used to help run one of the world’s biggest.)

I feared and worried that this debate would be the same old Script and Ritual: the crackpot as Protagonist, and their opponent, not to mention truth, facts, reason, logic, history, as Antagonist(s), and that’s exactly what happened here, and that’s why this debate was such a historic, shattering train wreck.

Where does that leave us? Right…here…

The Growing Risk of a Trump Landslide

America is now in an incredibly dangerous place.

Remember when I began to warn of a possible Trump landslide? I’m sure that even a lot of you sort of chuckled‚ that’s OK. But I bet you’re not chuckling now. I was right, sadly, as my predictions almost always are.

America’s now on the brink of just that, a Trump landslide, and in the American system, as I explained to my European friends this morning—who were baffled and horrified at the debate—Trump just has to win swing states to create just that effect. And he’s on the cusp of doing just that. If Trump wins every swing state? 5 out of 6? Even 5? That’s more or less a landslide, in America’s electoral system.

And that, of course, would be more or less game over. For the idea of America as a modern democracy. We’ve already spoken at length about the many, many forms of how that happens, and by now, they should just be common knowledge, from the 1000-page plan to purge and reshape the government, to savage rollbacks of basic freedoms, to the likelihood of the end of a peaceful transfer of power, to the consolidation of executive power and privilege to the point of autocracy.

All of that is now incredibly real.

And probably, you should begin thinking about what life in that sort of society is like, and what it means for you and those you love.

Should Biden Drop Out? Or, How This Really Happened

So should Biden “drop out”? That’s the question, of course, panicked pundits are asking. Christ—if only, as usual, they’d listened to us “alarmists,” who predicted exactly all this. They don’t, and they won’t, and right now? It’s not too late for Biden to drop out, but it is…

Unlikely. Because who else is there? The field of candidates is incredibly small, and not too appealing, and almost none have national, much less, international reputations.

And that’s a problem the Democrats have created.

When I started the Issue, I wrote about how the Dems were a “machine bureaucracy.” And that’s really how all this happened. It’s an organization stuck in the last century. It doesn’t know what modern branding, marketing, management, or innovation are. It doesn’t practice them, and that leaves it with these gaping holes, and making these terrible mistakes.

Let me explain. In France, the next Prime Minister is likely to be a…28 year old guy…from the far right party. And that’s because the far right was smart enough to put a photogenic, charming 28 year old in a position where he could lead them to victory. The guy is a genius at TikTok, and no matter how much you or I might not like the far right, the point is that that’s modern branding, marketing, management, and innovation.

Now think of the Dems. What hope does a 28 year old have of…accomplishing…anything…inside the Democratic Party? Much less leading anything? No chance at all. I’m not saying “A 28 year old should be President!” Not at all. I’m just pointing out that it’s a giant bureaucracy, and in those, all that matters is seniority, how many years you’ve put in, maybe how much money you can command, and what favors you can call in from other old-timers. 

It’s not a place for young people. New ideas. Modern thinking. Fresh approaches. 

And that’s why it’s losing.

Incredibly, the right is far more open and modern in all these ways, right now, way more flexible, takes more risks, embraces technology better, is more conversant with the fluid, self-organizing, spontaneous ways that modern organizations work.

That’s really why it wins. It’s better as an organization. Better at the basic functions of an organization, management, innovation, branding, marketing, leadership, and so on. It functions far, far more effectively, whereas organizations like the Democrats have no idea what modern any of that stuff even is.

And you could see that in Biden’s debate prep, which appeared to be old-world, and in his ongoing campaign and messaging and organizational failures. The Dems just don’t know how modern organizations work, and so they don’t know, for example, how to build excitement online, how to generate enthusiasm in a connected world, how to have new big ideas, and worst of all, those failures all culminate in…

A damning lack of alternatives, at the very point they’re needed most. Think of any classic bureaucracy. What happens to it? If there’s a problem with leadership, there’s usually a major crisis, and huge power struggle, precisely because there aren’t usually good candidates for new leaders, because one of the things bureaucracies do really well…is stifle new leadership.

Just like they stifle new ideas, new voices, new approaches. New leaders are forever kept at bay, behind glass ceilings, until the old ones are ready and willing to hand over the reins, and that’s usually when they’re practically dead, or maybe even after that. And so the Dems now face a classic problem of bureaucracy, which is a succession crisis.

“Should Biden drop out?” is in that sense the wrong question. The better approach is to understand how things got here, and why there are so few viable alternative, and in that way, fix the underlying problem, which is that the Dems aren’t a modern organization, in the same way, for example, Apple is, and they need to fix that, and we need them to fix that, too, because, well, right now, politics only really has one functional side, no matter how much you or I might fault the Democrats for not being progressive or whatever enough.

Right now? The challenge for us all is understanding how the Dems really got here, and where “here” really is, so let me spell it out in painfully blunt plain English.

It’s been about a decade since I began talking about “American collapse.” In that time, I lost friends, columns, book deals, and pundits called me all kinds of names, from alarmist to hysteric and beyond.

And now?

Now its final stages are just a few short months away, and the very people who called me all those names, foolishly, without considering what I was saying, are now panicking, in despair, tearing their hair out, rending their shirts, wailing and lamenting: “how did we get here?” 

The answer to that question lies in their irresponsibility, but also in my terrible failure, to make my peers listen to me when it counted most. I hold my hands up in shame and humiliation. But do they?

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