The presidential debate’s biggest loser

28 June 2024
Ben Hillier
Donald Trump (left) and Joe Biden in the first US presidential debate, 27 June 2024 PHOTO: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

What does three-quarters of a billion dollars in presidential campaign fundraising buy? Two old men who struggle to construct coherent sentences.

In the debate between the Republican from America’s wealthiest 1 percent and the Democrat from the top 2 percent, one clear loser emerged: everyone who tuned in.

“Are the two candidates going to shake hands tonight?”, ABC News anchor David Muir asked prior to the commencement of proceedings. “That is one of the big questions”, his colleague responded.

A huge question. Right up there with discussions about the nature of human consciousness and the origin of the universe.

“What really matters is the moments”, Democratic strategist Joshua Karp told the Washington Post in anticipation of the debate, “and I think that’s what I’ll be watching for the most”.

Cherishing moments—that’s usually how one talks about approaching the final weeks of life. Yet in this instance, it was almost prophetic: for the first half of the debate, Biden’s seemed to be a mind already halfway to the great beyond.

There were plenty of moments to ponder. But that’s just the nature of time, in which instants form an infinite sequence until the universe collapses on itself and all being is annihilated. Many viewers may have wished for this when the elderly candidates began arguing over who would win at golf.

On and on the moments came and went. But the time spent viewing was time that will never be recovered. Everyone who did watch is quite likely stupider for having done so.

Yet the biggest loser will be those who tuned out long before now: the millions of US workers keeping the economy afloat for the 1 and 2 percenters like Biden and Trump, yet struggling to make ends meet—and who will continue struggling no matter which party wins the White House in November.

“When asked what drives the economy, many Americans have a simple, single answer that comes to mind immediately: ‘greed’”, a group of researchers from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences wrote recently. “They believe the rich and powerful have designed the economy to benefit themselves and have left others with too little or with nothing at all.”

This belief corresponds with reality. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimates that the top 10 percent of US households hold more than two-thirds of total household wealth. The bottom 50 percent hold just 2.5 percent.

Household debt is $17.7 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s latest household debt and credit report. In the first three months of the year, almost 9 percent of credit card balances and 8 percent of car loans “transitioned into delinquency”, it says.

The Census Bureau’s May Household Pulse Survey observes that almost one-third of adults—81 million people—find it “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to pay their usual household expenses. Unsurprisingly, the trouble is concentrated at the lower end of the income ladder: more than 50 percent of adults living in households with incomes below $50,000 struggle with bills.

More than 9 percent of adults—24 million people—often or sometimes don’t have enough food to eat. Unsurprisingly, the wealthiest people—those with household incomes above $200,000—barely registered problems putting food on the table. But the proportion rises to 28 percent in households earning less than $25,000, 18 percent in those earning between $25,000 and $34,999, and 14 percent in those earning between $35,000 and $50,000.

This isn’t a blip. The US, the richest country in the world by many measures, has for decades led the way among “advanced” economies for its higher poverty rate, lower life expectancy, higher level of wealth inequality and lower minimum wage.

And for years, most Americans—about seven out of ten—have said that the economy is rigged and favours the powerful. “I just feel like the underdog can’t get ahead, and it’s all about greed and profit”, one Kentucky resident told the American Academy researchers.

Yet workers are offered only establishment parties and establishment politicians—or a billionaire fraudster pretending to be the great outsider and champion of the disenfranchised. And they get a media that thinks the biggest political question is whether the shysters running the show are civil enough to shake hands as they clamour for high office.

“We’re a failing nation”, Trump declared during the debate. He’s not wrong.

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