Watching this week’s vice presidential debate was a strange experience. The first presidential debate, on Tuesday 29 September, was a spectacle: Biden was unimpressive, while Trump was characteristically deranged and dangerous. Compared to that, there was something almost reassuring about seeing Senator Kamala Harris face off against Vice President Mike Pence. Neither candidate really answered the questions, and we learnt very little about the policy positions of their respective campaigns. Both fudged the truth to some degree, and each let a few personal jabs slip through the insincere façade of civility.
It was, in a phrase, ‘business as usual’.
In years past, the debate would have been an example of all that is most frustrating and least heartening about the United States’ two-party system. By the time Kamala Harris was promising that a Biden administration would not seek to outlaw fracking, it was easy to imagine we were back in the era of post-Cold War consensus, with each party equally happy to sit back and let rapacious, low-regulation capitalism rack up the bill on our continued survival on this planet.
But from the vantage point of 2020, it bordered on comforting. And this is deeply, deeply concerning. To be clear, I am not suggesting that progressives withhold their support from the Biden-Harris ticket, nor am I arguing that the two sides are effectively the same. Voting is not self-expression, and progressives shouldn’t kid themselves that standing back to let Trump win a second term will see anything change for the better. Aside from his clear character flaws and personal incompetence, Donald Trump marks a very real threat to US democracy, to the extent that all good, patriotic Americans should be making plans for how to fight back if he attempts to steal the election.
Still, the vice presidential debate was an important reminder that removing Trump from office will not be enough to save the republic — not even close. In fact, if a Biden-Harris administration falls into the same traps as President Obama’s — incrementalism, a naïve faith in Republicans’ willingness to reach compromise and actually govern — we could see a repeat of Trump’s surprise 2016 victory in four years’ time. Because as long as crucial policies like healthcare reform, which a majority of Americans support, remain unenacted, as long as voters feel their concerns are going unheard, and as long as the two parties can be portrayed as part of the same corrupt swamp, there will be support for those who openly seek to shred democratic norms. And, as long as the country’s only serious opposition to the Republican Party refuses to actually oppose that party’s policies, there will be no one left to defend those norms.