The quality of America’s quadrennial presidential debates has declined over the years, but the president’s performance wasn’t just a low...
The quality of America’s quadrennial presidential debates has declined over the years, but the president’s performance wasn’t just a low moment in a steady deterioration of public discourse. Unable to win the debate, he decided to destroy the possibility of debate. He created conditions intended to scare off not just future audiences of the next two presidential debates — if they happen — but to make it a lose-lose situation for his opponent, and any presidential candidate considering participation in the future. He took a space in which certain expectations about behavior have largely prevailed, in which rules were clearly established and mostly followed, and left that place uninhabitable.
I kept thinking of signs posted on beaches, or at the entrance to city parks, with rules about littering and cleaning up after your dog. Often, these rules don’t even need to be enforced. The beach or the park succeeds based on the willingness of everyone who enters to uphold commonly accepted expectations. Maintenance of the space becomes reflexive, a civic habit that is self-reinforcing: When you enter a beautiful space, you are inclined to keep it beautiful, no public shaming required.
Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. If it isn’t a beautiful space, then most people aren’t inclined to keep it beautiful. And when these conditions begin to prevail, public spaces fail, often precipitously. They also fail when access to and enjoyment of their amenities is limited to a single group, entity or person. Charge a fee to enter and the space is a little less public. Segregate a park and it isn’t a public space at all. And if one sector of the population is tacitly allowed to control the space — to determine what activities can transpire, what music can be played, what foods can be eaten — it also fails to serve a common good.
That’s effectively what happened Tuesday night. The president arrived to the debates, shredded the rules and cranked up the volume. This left both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace with only two choices: Let Trump dominate the space, or shout over him.
The drama was depressing to so many people because it parallels a larger drama common to civic space — both actual space and ritual or ceremonial space — which is: It can take centuries to establish a commonly accepted and effective set of norms, and only hours or minutes to destroy them. In this wisdom lies the essence of both conservatism and conservation.
I remember the environmental public education programs of the 1970s, the television advertisements trying to persuade Americans not to litter, or to conserve resources. Although we have failed to address the larger and more urgent climate catastrophe that is unfolding all around us, raging in California wildfires and swamping lives and hope in Gulf Coast floods, this country made considerable progress on some of the things that are more immediately palpable, the “social space” environmental issues like not tossing your soda can out the car window. Those habits, which may do little to address global warming, are nonetheless valuable social goods, creating cleaner, more inviting spaces.
The president just showed how easy it is to pollute rhetorical space. He heaved rubbish out the window and effectively said, “what are you going to do about it?” That contempt, that indifference to simple rules, simple courtesy, simple concern for the experience of others, is already seeping through the rest of the society, cropping up in anti-mask tirades and anti-vaccine protests that endanger public health around the country. It will show up everywhere else, soon, if we don’t stop it. Do not expect that, if you arrive early and line up for something, the latecomers will go to the end of the queue. Do not expect the guy in front of you at the movie theater to stop talking on his cellphone, or your airplane row-mate to move when you need to get out of the window seat.
The personal appropriation of public space was all the more egregious because of the crises which now endanger public space on the national and planetary scale. The president, Biden pointed out, carefully controls his personal space when it comes to transmission of the virus but deliberately confuses the matter when it comes to the rest of the public. And while he refused to accept the science behind the dire impacts of global warming, he defended clean water and clean air — aspects of the environment that are often not shared equally, that can be divvied up by Zip code and even commodified.
The analogy of public discourse to public space raises larger questions about the idea of rules and order. The rules posted at public parks and beaches have often been used to disenfranchise some social groups, including people of color and teenagers, targeted at their preferred ways to use social space. Similarly, the rules of a debate can be used for gatekeeping, to prevent open, spontaneous discourse. One of the invaluable design lessons still being learned is that successful public space is about improvisation and adaptation, about letting people figure out how best to use it.
But the productive disorder of public space isn’t simply anarchic. Parks don’t thrive because everybody is free to do their own thing. Rather, they thrive when people collaborate on doing something collectively meaningful, generally bound by unwritten but tacitly accepted rules. When people fail to use the poorly designed paths laid out for them on the drafting board, but lay out their own paths in the grass and use them consistently, they aren’t breaking the rules. Rather, they are redesigning the park — in the spirit of the original, with collective adherence to new, more functional rules.
That isn’t what happened Tuesday night. Trump railed about antifa and violence on the streets, while committing rhetorical violence, in effect demonstrating through his own misbehavior the very chaos he was holding up as a boogeyman to scare voters. His performance was anarchic, laying waste to both the written rules of the debate — which his campaign had agreed to — and the tacit rules of productive conversation. In real time, with much of the nation and the world watching, he demonstrated one of the classic weaknesses of badly designed public space: that one group, or one person, can claim it, use it only for their own purposes and effectively drive others away.
And that is assuredly the intent.
When a space seems hopeless, people abandon it. Even before the spittle was dry on the presidential lectern last night, political analysts were debating whether the next debates were worth having. Perhaps, like so many other norms that have been shredded since 2016, we should just give up on the hope of a meaningful presidential debate.
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which indicated that it might make changes to the format of upcoming debates, should hear those alarm bells ringing and consider an intervention. The commission need not weigh in on anything the president said. But they must acknowledge the damage done to a public good, and set strict new rules and vigorous means of enforcement.
This isn’t a political or partisan issue. It is an urgent matter of historic preservation.