At the time of writing, the vomitus that now passes as policy is being sprayed all over my front room. This stuff passing through the telly is apparently the third US presidential debate, although it sounds to me as though this coarse matter — “You’re a sexist!”, “You’re a liar!”, “Why did they make a Ghostbusters with girls in?” — has already been divulged a thousand times. And it does seem to many of us that for all the sound and fury, there has not been one recent instant in this election that we could legitimately call “debate”.

It’s irresponsible to report on a big event that hasn’t really happened, so we won’t. Especially given the likelihood that by the time I press “send”, Donald will have plonked his genitals on the lectern and said, “Cop this”. It’s possible. Actually possible in this election brought to you by Playboy, the makers of white noise machines and the most untethered, stump-dumb shouting this side of a CrossFit challenge. Let’s just suppose that the dick has landed. None of would be surprised.

What would be a surprise, though, would be the emergence of a real debate on policy. We left that behind in the primaries when Clinton, who once preferred to keep her public and private views on the matter of finance sector regulation separate, actually argued openly with Sanders. Not just for the Democratic Party, but for all of us conscious of US power, these moments were productive. Sanders legitimised and amplified the grievances of Occupy, previously silenced by law enforcement and a press eager to tell newly homeless people that they just didn’t understand real life. Clinton, to her credit, answered him. Her policy positions became slightly less monstrous as a result.

That was a good, brief time, but this is a bad and long one. It’s been curiously entertaining, of course, and the first debate was very widely viewed. But what we saw was not, by any stretch, deliberation. It was a spat whose terms did not exceed those set out by online argument on smashed avocado. Or whether it was a good idea to remake Ghostbusters with girls in.

[Rundle: Trump has voters reaching for the pitchforks as things get ugly]

We can blame the era for this crap, in part. “Identity politics” is not just a progressive pursuit, but a much older, newly accelerated obsession with the instrumental power of individuals. It’s much harder to think about history and institutions as acquiring their own mass logic, and much easier to attribute good and bad things to good and bad people. This is just as true for progressives as it is for the cultural right. The classical liberal will tell us that it is great men who move history forward; if we ask the question “Who is John Galt?” we will find the answer to prosperity. The new progressive will tell us that it is bad people who impede history; if we believe the Amnesty report that the torture on Nauru is the intentional work of a few corrupt individuals and not the inevitable result of 15 years of power based in propaganda, it seems much easier to fix.

These debates are a lesson in the new and extremist belief in identity: if you are an honourable person, you will do honourable things. This, in my view, is dangerous bollocks. As the world and all its problems becomes more complex, we seem to be acquiring the most delusional and simple approach to their remedy. Is Clinton a lovely lady who went door-to-door in her youth asking sensitive questions about disabled students? Did Trump once sell rancid meat? I. Don’t. Care. If it were me moderating and not Chris Wallace, I would make both candidates wear paper bags on their heads, ban any personal pronouns and ban any reference to moving or damaging personal narrative. FFS. At this point, put a calculator in charge. This is the opposite of evidence-based policy. It’s identity-based evidence.

[Rundle: Trump boasts of ‘grabbing pussy’, GOP ducks for cover]

In a world that hosts at least 7 billion problems, many of them with their point of origin in Washington, we put our faith in individual morality; we forget the power of history and institutions to move beyond mere human intervention. But this humanistic ignorance aside, we have to lay a lot of the blame for these terrible debates with Trump. I am not especially fond of Clinton, but I gotta cut this politician some slack. There is no language to address a man who says things like “I’d put you in jail!” other than that of spanking. He is a toddler who resists toilet training. We can expect Clinton to be nothing but a disapproving nanny.

We can blame the times, blame the Donald and even today — although I haven’t heard it yet — blame a debate format that chooses to pair the topics of debt and entitlements. That US debt — on which the nation has built and will continue to build a fortune — has been matched with the topic of welfare in this moment just seems odd. Sanders did a very good 101 job of explaining to millions that austerity, which affects the poorest consumers, always increases and never decreases national debt. Surely, TARP and debt would have been a better combo in the current climate.

But. By now, we have likely heard no meaningful policy. We will have heard only of personal traits. The political has become entirely personal and with every boast about personal wealth or personal philanthropy and every charge about sexual abuse or its obfuscation, we will be convinced only of one thing: the political is no longer political.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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