Globally, It’s Not Debatable

Photo of Carolyn Grisko

BY Carolyn Grisko

October 2, 2020

Public Affairs

After watching what we’re generously calling the first presidential debate of Campaign 2020, my first instinct was to analyze it as though it was an actual debate. I tried to determine each candidate’s strategy and how well they executed it. You know: President Trump was intent on throwing Joe Biden off his game and goading him into saying something unfortunate, etc.

I struggled, because something much bigger was at play, and I finally got to it by reaching out to my IPREX colleagues outside of the United States – all owners of independent communications agencies. I asked them to sum up their view of the United States in this moment, through the lens of the debate. I asked for a word or a phrase and I got that, and so much more.

These communications professionals from Asia, Mexico, Europe and South America had indeed paid attention, and they immediately reacted to the most frightening message sent by the president:

If I don’t win, it’s because the other side cheated. I will not commit to waiting to claim victory until the election is officially certified. As to a peaceful transfer of power, we’ll have to see.

My friends registered disbelief and diminished respect.

From Scandinavia: “The United States was always seen as leading the world and a land of opportunities for anyone talented and hard working. What’s happening in these few years, and this, shatters that image. No longer will it command respect globally.”

Mexico: “The debate revealed the fragility of the image we had of the United States in terms of its democracy. Scenes like the ones we saw have more to do with a banana republic than with — what we thought was — a consolidated democracy.”

Spain: “The chaos in the U.S. (and the world) is cooked up between zero ideas and a thousand insults.”

South America: “Fear. I never thought I’d see the U.S. at this level of decline.”

Germany: “The vast majority of Germans have perceived the U.S. as a world-leading nation in business, technology, and science, a leading nation in music, literature, arts, and culture, a guarantor of values such as freedom, rights, and humanity, and an integral part of the free world. … Politics is not driven by deals, it is driven by values, attitude and cooperation. It should be integrating, not separating. The TV debate and its culture were a magnifying glass zooming into who/what/where the problem is.”

“The questionable role of the media…they keep giving the platform to dishonest and irrelevant opinions by not asking the right questions, creating the right setting/ format and not digging aimed at real truth finding.”

Hard to hear, isn’t it? Please know that these business owners have diverse political views. But you can hear their befuddlement, disbelief and fear at the notion of the U.S. losing its place of leadership in the world. Fear from my friends in places like Spain and Chile, because they know that democracy is fragile and hard to reclaim, once lost. If the United States fails in this grand experiment, where is the hope for nations whose grip on freedom is already loose?

My colleagues were right about the role of media in all of this, as well. We need change that goes beyond new debate rules and formats. For four years now, journalists have covered Donald Trump as they have any other president…but he’s not just any other president, as he crashes norms, tells outlandish lies and fails to disavow white supremacy. Reporters still don’t know how to deal with the squishiness of statements like, “I don’t know the Proud Boys.” Well, they know him, and they are “standing by’” as voters go to the polls and the election results are announced.

Let’s stay sharp and resolute. I do believe we can renew our democracy and reclaim our place in the world, but it’s going to take a lot of time and hard work, like rebuilding a city after a hurricane.  If there’s something more important to do, I can’t think of it just now.

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Photo of Carolyn Grisko

BY Carolyn Grisko

October 2, 2020

Public Affairs