My daughter’s adolescence gave me two insights into human behavior: we love a good fight, and in our weakest moments we go on the offensive. Both truths were clearly demonstrated in Wednesday evening’s Republican debate.
During our daughter’s middle school years the family lived in Southern California. Over her lunch hour, when gangs were sure to get into fights, she’d follow them around. She didn’t want to miss the excitement.
Americans like the drama of a good fight. From John Wayne westerns and Audie Murphy war stories to today’s crime shows and intergalactic battles, we find pleasure in watching the survival of the fittest. We bet on cock fights, boxing matches, football games.
Donald Trump’s no fool. Right away he set the campaign tone. Like the school yard bully he strutted around, tossing out insults. We’ve followed him, itching to see who’ll take him on. Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina seem up to the challenge. Interestingly, Ben Carson’s contrasting calm demeanor seems to be serving him well. Jeb Bush’s isn’t.
Sadly the media have been lured into the love of fight. Wednesday night Cruz rightly criticized the inane nature of the questions. He pointed out that the Democratic debate was different, attributing differences to the media giving the Democrats an easy ride. No, the CNN moderators were professionals. Rather than encourage a fight, they asked policy questions allowing candidates to show their differences. It was a debate for grown-ups. Republicans deserve the same kind of forum.
This brings me to my second observation about human behavior: in our weakest moments we go on the offensive. When our daughter knew she was in trouble, she’d attack us first: “How dare you wake up my friends’ parents in the middle of the night to ask if I was there.” “You are the worst parents…”
Wednesday, as soon as Cruz blamed “the mainstream media,” other candidates joined in, referring to “the liberal media.” This worked for Republicans in George W. Bush’s campaign. Cowed by accusations, journalists quit asking the difficult questions. This, in turn, has led many liberals to conclude that the press is conservative.
I’m not suggesting that Republicans bear sole responsibility for the direction their debates have taken. Rather that the public’s lust for blood and our tendency toward offensive posturing have brought us to this point. As far as the media is concerned, we’re getting what we want.
Nancy Werking Poling is author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman and Out of the Pumpkin Shell.