If there can be listicles about the best burrito in every state, why not about the 2020 election?
“Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, ‘We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.’ So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
That was the final question of the 2020 Democrats’ fourth debate, and there aren’t enough eye-roll gifs on the internet for it. (There are, however, many many tweets about why Ellen’s approach to “kindness” and her friendship with George W. Bush is an act of racism).
Asking candidates to talk about a friendship seems insignificant when there was so much else left unsaid. Candidates are competing to run our country and to (re)build our future. Debates are a chance for each of them to articulate a vision and a work plan for a radically different country, and this kind of question fails us all.
So what do we wish the moderators had asked (and should ask going forward)?
“How will you support a Green New Deal?”
A question that asks how exactly candidates support a Green New Deal would allow for a deeper and more important conversation about the climate crisis: Does their agenda tie together climate and pro-growth economics like infrastructure and job security? Connect climate and racial equity in a meaningful way? (If you’re interested in answering these questions for yourself, you can check out this scorecard developed by the Sunrise Movement that evaluates each candidate’s position on these questions and more).
We’d also settle for climate questions of any variety. It’s only, you know, the most pressing issue facing the global population.
“Do you view police brutality as a form of gun violence?”
Not even a week before the debate, Atatiana Jefferson was killed by a police officer who entered her home unannounced during a “wellness check” as she was playing video games with her nephew. The week before, the nation watched the trial and subsequent violence surrounding the conviction of police officer Amber Guyger; she shot and killed Botham Jean in his home in Dallas after mistaking his apartment for her own and assuming him to be a burglar.
“[P]olice violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that,” Secretary Julián Castro said on Tuesday, echoing what organizations like Million Hoodies have been saying long before this week. In all the discussion surrounding gun violence in this country, very little is focused on ideas to demilitarize the police or reform a system that harms Black and brown people every single day.
“How do you define racism?”
It seems obvious that candidates should know what racism is before we decide whether they have credible or effective race-centered policies. And yet, have they ever been asked to simply define it? Race is a subject that often makes it to the debates by way of Kamala Harris directly addressing it with her opponents (“I would like to speak on the issue of race”). Antiracism scholar Ibram X. Kendi says that “at all times, people are either racist or anti-racist.” If someone is supporting a policy that upholds racism, they are being racist in that moment; if they are supporting a policy that works against racism, they are being anti-racist. Talking about their policies in this framework would push the candidates, and ourselves, to decide whether policies are actively working against racism or upholding it.
“We have surpassed $1.6 trillion in student debt. What will you do to tackle the increased dominance of the financial sector over the rest of the economy—and especially over higher education?”
The outsized role of the financial sector in our economy—a process known as “financialization”—is a quiet threat spreading across all sectors of society, but in particular, higher education. State funding and financial support has steadily declined since 2008, while tuition at public four-year colleges has risen by almost 40 percent. The increased presence of people with ties to the financial sector on boards of trustees and in administrative positions has led to a shift in the priorities and overall financial management of universities, transforming them from respected institutions educating and shaping the country’s future to profit-making machines attending to the goals of the financial elite. As more and more students take up the challenge of uncovering their school’s financial practices, we want to know what candidates will do to put students’ interests first, and how they will tackle this looming threat that, left unregulated, will exacerbate already extreme conditions of inequality.
“What will you do to ensure the basic human rights of the entire LGBTQ+ community?”
The Title VII cases in front of the Supreme Court are clear examples of how the LGBTQ+ community’s basic rights are far from secure. Given the ideologies and backgrounds of the justices, the court is likely to rule in favor of legal discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. (This includes employment but also housing, education, and more). A recent candidate town hall covered this issue but received heavy criticism for its lack of inclusion for Black trans women and coverage of the specific dangers they face. To date, 19 trans people have been murdered this year, and 26 were killed last year; most were trans women of color. Addressing the absolute mistreatment of this community and its multitude of identities should not only be a topic for a town hall; it should serve as an essential lens through which we see the basic rights of all people.
After four debates, we still must do outside research to know how each candidate would answer these questions. As this week proved, current debate questions are stale, and they lack nuance and depth. If we—and the candidates—push for it, maybe the next debate will give us more substance. But probably not. We’ll probably just hear some more about Ellen.