On 26 September 2016, I watched my first presidential debate. I am not an American citizen, therefore I do not have the right to vote. I moved to New York only a few years ago, therefore I am not yet accustomed to American political culture, and I do not get the excitement of a political campaign that begins years before the actual election. I do not even believe in elections as the culminating moment of democratic life, so I am three times removed from the debate that unfolded in front of my eyes that evening. Thus, I still enjoy a privileged observatory position: that of a stranger, an insider and outsider at the same time.

I am not an expert in American politics or electoral campaigns, but I am knowledgeable about political myths. After so many years researching them, I am accustomed to spotting those narratives that provide significance to the people who are involved in their production-reception-reproduction, and that therefore tend to orient political action. Political myths provide the lens through which we look at the world, and feel and act within it. As a consequence, we tend to take them for granted, exactly in the same way that we take for granted lenses we have been wearing for too long. As such, particularly when transmitted through political rituals such as elections, they become powerful tools for reproducing the founding narratives of a society, as well as its ideological assumptions. It is when political myths come to play the latter role that they turn into conversation-stoppers. They then close debate over certain issues rather than opening it. In what follows, I would like to point out two myths that I perceived in the presidential debate, to try to re-open some important conversations.

For an outside observer, one of the most striking features of the debate was the amount of time devoted to the fight against ISIS. In the context of a very short debate — just an hour and a half — when presidential candidates have to explain how to deal with pressing issues for everyday life, such as jobs, childcare, medical coverage, economic inequalities, access to education, structural racism, just to mention a few that any person who is not a millionaire will have to struggle with, why give so much emphasis to ISIS and the fight against it? What are the chances, for an American citizens, of dying in an ISIS terrorist attack compared to dying from heart disease or another sickness for which medical coverage is still not guaranteed? Why is the security question framed mainly in terms of terrorism and never in terms of social assistance? Why not talk about the increasing number of suicides in this country, which is clearly related to the raising pressure and anxiety generated by a highly competitive economic system[1]?

This is not to say that ISIS is not a political issue. Nor is this to say that we should simply forget about them. It is to point to a striking discrepancy between the general concerns of everyday life in America and the political discourse put on screen by the debate. What is the underlying narrative that orients that aspect of the debate, and that finds both candidates in agreement that it is one of the top issues to deal with?

The way that both candidates spoke, it was not hard to recognize the very familiar narrative of an epic fight between good and evil. There are good people and there are bad ones. As a consequence, there is no debate about whether America has to play a role in this fight; the only question is what tools to use. Whether more air strikes and bombing are called for, as Clinton explicitly said, or a closure to Muslim immigration, as Trump suggested, the very idea that ISIS is our business, that we are part of this battle, is never questioned.

One may want go back to the messianism that animated the first European colonizers who built this country, to the very idea of being part of a superior divine plan where good people have to fight against bad ones — and both candidates seemed indeed to agree, again, that America has been called to lead the world. Or, one may want to investigate how this self-appointed role converges with some of the historical sources of the myth of a clash between Islam and the West.[2]

But instead of doing so, I would like to point to a worrying parallel: this underlying narrative of an epic fight between good and evil is exactly the same as the one that comes out of ISIS propaganda, and which shaped much of Al-Qaeda’s ideology previously. By engaging with ISIS in those terms, both candidates are not only reinforcing the myth of a clash between Islam and the West (which also explains the singling out of Muslim communities), but they are also ideologically reproducing the underlying assumption that we have to deal with the enemy in the very same violent terms. Nowhere was the space created for raising the question whether, by bombing ISIS, the government is actually increasing the threat to American soil, and thus increasing the insecurity of its own citizens. Revenge against bombing countries (most often labeled in the mythical terms of the “crusaders”) has indeed been consistently a major declared motive of ISIS terrorist attacks. Yet, that question was not simply left unanswered by the debate: it was made impossible.

This is particularly striking because the discussion of the ways to fight terrorism on US soil clearly pointed to the difficulties of fighting such a dispersed, flexible and very often volatile enemy, mainly because it most often only comes into existence in the moment when the violent act is vindicated by some Jihadist group. The only difference between previous Jihadist groups and ISIS is that the latter has called for a “do- it-yourself-wherever-you-are strategy”, so that any frustrated, mentally unstable person who manages to get a weapon in their hands can actually claim to be an ISIS fighter.[3] But how many such people are there in the US, in comparison to the millions of people living in extreme poverty, for instance?[4] Why was there no mention of the severe poverty that still persists in this country despite some recent improvements? [5] Why so much focus on a threat that, in terms of numbers, although perhaps not in terms of spectacle, is so minimal in comparison to many other threats that weigh on the everyday lives of Americans?

This lead me to another myth that was both transmitted and reinforced by the debate: that of middle-class America. For the entire length of the debate, both candidates spoke about the middle class, how to promote it, how to defend it, or even, in Trump’s improbable prediction, how multi-millionaires such as himself will actually benefit it because they will generate so many jobs (although, given how often Trump mentioned “his properties” and “his investments,” we have reason to suspect that those multi-millionaires will, like himself, care more about their own profits than about college debts. But let us leave this aside for the moment). All the problems mentioned, from how to foster small enterprise to college education, are very real ones. But are they the only ones? What about wage-laborers who will never own their own business? How about those for whom sending kids to college is not even thinkable? And how about those who do not have families because they cannot afford it or– can this be part of the debate? — because they do not want one?

Not all Americans — not to mention immigrants — are small entrepreneurs who primarily worry about taxation and how to send their kids to college. Certainly within a world made only of middle and upper classes, even some of the most absurd issues raised by Trump make sense, but you have to belong to those classes and be fairly rich in order to complain that La Guardia and JFK are not as fancy as the airports of Dubai or Singapore, which seemed to worry Trump so much. But not everybody, at least in the America that I see every day in the street, has the chance to even make that comparison through direct experience. Equally so, there are people for whom the email scandal attributed to Clinton may not be such a big issue, simply because sending emails is not part of their life.

The entire evening, I kept asking myself: what is this middle class? If it is a middle, should it not me in the middle of something? Should there not be other classes both above and below it? Certainly there was a mention of the upper class and the multi-millionaires, not least because one of them was on the screen. But how about those below the threshold of the middle? Maybe “working class” is too much of a scary word, maybe it has too much of a Marxist taste for presidential candidates. But even the “lower class” were not there. No doubt addressing it and dealing with its own specific problems would have meant questioning the mythical world of middle-class America, and including in the debate those who will never travel to the Dubai airport in the course of their lives. More profoundly, focusing on working-class problems would have meant questioning one of the underlying political myths of American society: that of poverty as an individual failure.[6] If there is only a middle class and an upper class as a rule, then those who fall outside of it are just anomalies, individual failures, accidental mistakes in an otherwise linear path to wealth for everybody. But if you are poor because you come from a working-class background, then you live an entire life on the verge of poverty, not because you were not “good enough,” but because the structural inequalities of this economic system are so deeply rooted that you have no chance of dismantling them on your own. That was, unfortunately, another question not simply left unanswered, but actually made impossible by the debate and its underlying myths.


[1] On the raising rate of suicide among women.

[2] On the latter see Bottici, C. and Challand, B. The myth of the clash of civilizations, Routledge, 2010.

[3] When the Far Enemy Becomes Near – Pubic Seminar

[4] Washington Post; National Poverty Center Working Papers Series.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/26/business/economy/millions-in-us-climb-out-of-poverty-at-long-last.html?_r=1

[6] I have dealt with the American myth of poverty as individual failure in Bottici, C. A Philosophy of Political Myth, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 254-257.