“The person who is most enjoying this debate is Donald Trump,” said New Jersey senator Cory Booker about Democrats picking one another apart. As someone who is not a politics impresario in the slightest, I decided to watch the second night of the American Democratic debates not only because I’m concerned about the current state of the country (gun issues, race issues, climate issues, immigration issues) but because I wanted to observe politics from an outsider perspective.
In all honesty, what pushed me to watch the second night of the debates was not just the need to update myself on the proposed policies or to see who could possibly be the next President of the U.S., but the flashy trailer that kept popping up on every television, laptop, and phone around me. If you were mildly paying attention to the trailer, the red graphics and grey colour scheme, the blaring music and dramatic editing, all these elements made it seem like a commercial for a high profile boxing match, one that you really didn’t want to miss.
After watching the back and forth between the panel of presidential hopefuls, what I noticed most was the misdirection tactic employed by almost all of the candidates. Every so often a candidate would remind us not to forget who’s the real bad guy here—and that’s Trump. By changing the subject, candidates diverted the debate and the audience’s attention. It’s a disruptive strategy used in debates when someone can’t add anything valuable to the argument.
Yes, we all know Trump is the bad guy, but you didn’t answer the big questions. What’s your plan for healthcare? Your stance on climate change? What will you do about the legalisation regarding immigrants coming into the country? Even Cardi B noticed this tactic, saying, “We get distracted with people putting Trump on blast. (…) Why don’t we post every single day the positive things that these Democratic candidates want to do for our country?”
According to the data analytics website FiveThirtyEight, during the first night of the debates, only 6 out of 20 candidates mentioned Trump’s name, whereas in the second debate his name was mentioned by all of the candidates, with Elizabeth Warren mentioning him 12 times, a new record. This misdirection would come into play as soon as a candidate needed to regain the good graces of the audience. By saying something unfavourable about Trump, they didn’t have to answer to a particular question and gained a little more air time on top of that.
Like any political debate (or any debate for that matter), people tend to focus on ‘winning’ instead of discussing their takes on issues. According to author and Harvard MBA graduate John T. Reed, some will go as far as using intellectually dishonest methods in order to ‘win’. This involves tactics as childish as name-calling, belittling your opponent’s credentials, and of course, changing the subject or engaging in misdirection.
During the second night of the Democratic debates, candidates deflected moderator’s line of questioning by using Trump as a scapegoat, reminding everyone of his reckless choices. From a psychological standpoint, the scapegoat mechanism shows that when the world is in chaos, one person or entity is blamed for it. To satisfy people’s unanimous unhappiness, that one person will be singled out or used as a scapegoat to satiate the public’s discontent. Why? Because it’s always easier to blame someone instead of taking responsibility. Playing the blame game and focusing on the villain stops us from identifying the actual problem and finding a solution.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t blame Trump for the current chaos in the country. We should, he’s the President of the U.S. and the country is his responsibility, but that’s not what this is about. This isn’t even about politics, really, but rather about demeanor, tackling the hard issues, and why people are focusing on blaming the villain instead of tackling the core of the problem.
A media sensation erupted earlier this week when Vermont Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders and rapper Cardi B teamed up for a political partnership aimed at encouraging young people to get involved in politics.
The two met up at a nail salon in Detroit to shoot a video in which they discuss their mutual concerns about the country and hash out possible solutions. While the video itself has yet to air, a post by Cardi B with a picture from the shoot featured a caption stating, “Stay tuned to see how he will fight for economic, racial, and social justice for all. Together, let’s build a movement of young people to transform this country”.
In a separate post, Cardi B called on bloggers, YouTubers, and social media influencers to use their platforms in order to get their followers involved in the 2020 election campaign. “We get distracted with people putting Trump on blast, like CNN constantly putting Trump on blast for the evil shit he has been committing in this country, because he puts things on Twitter that distract us from all the bullshit that he actually be doing”, the rapper wrote on her Instagram, “So instead of us posting the little bullshit that he be posting on Twitter, why don’t we post every single day the positive things that these Democratic candidates want to do for our country?”. Referring to Sanders, Cardi B added, “This man has a big chance of winning in 2020, and we can change that”.
Sanders has repeatedly welcomed Cardi B’s endorsement, which dates back to 2018 (when the singer called on her fans to vote for ‘Daddy Bernie’). The presidential hopeful commended Cardi B for her enthusiasm regarding getting the youth engaged in the political sphere, and in an interview for CNN stated that, “The future of America depends on young people…They are voting in large numbers, but not large enough numbers”.
Cardi B’s desire to get young people interested in politics and assume an active role in shaping America’s future is certainly positive. That said, the manner in which she proposes to go comes with its own issues. There are numerous examples of how social media platforms and celebrity power have been effectively harnessed to call attention to social, political, environmental, and human rights issues. Just last month, Sudanese-American Shahd Khidir used her Instagram profile to shine a spotlight on the dreadful massacre which took place in Sudan’s capital. But to suggest that, as a general rule, pop culture figures and social media personas are naturally endowed with the ability to determine ‘what is right’ and become social leaders simply because they are popular is absurd.
There is no one ‘right’ way to go about addressing socio-political disparities and injustices. Instead of feeding their followers with a particular answer, popular figures ought to raise issues, engage their audience in a real conversation, and encourage them to think critically about what they believe would be the best course of action—based on their unique views and circumstances.
By adhering to a particular candidate and calling on your audience to throw their support behind them, you inevitably foster a herd mentality. Progress on such complex and serious issues doesn’t emanate from forcing ideas down people’s throats, but rather by acquainting them with the situation and inspiring them to find their own voice. Chance The Rapper’s 2016 march to the polls, #ParadeToThePolls, was a blueprint for how celebrities can use their influence and reach to inspire political engagement without dictating who we should all be supporting per se.
Cardi B is right in her criticism of media outlets for emboldening Trump by keeping him in the limelight, and for refusing to place more focus on positive acts committed by other politicians and community leaders. She’s also justified in her call for harnessing the youth to get involved in what’s happening in the country and end their overall apathy to social issues. But is turning celebs and brand stewards into spokespersons of one presidential candidate a positive step to follow?
Equating celebrity and popularity with moral authority is a slippery slope. We must be cautious in how we merge popular culture with politics and use it as a force to drive social change. Because when we don’t we run the risk of blurring the lines between activism and self-promotion, not to mention ending up with reality TV stars in the White House.