Co-authored by Suhas Gondi, a senior undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis.
It's a strange feeling to watch a presidential debate unfold at your alma mater. In the lead-up to the debate itself, there was an element of personal excitement, of celebrity sightings on the quad, student interviews making national television, and knowing exactly how far away the CNN stage is from the Fox News panel, based on nothing more than the backdrop of their camera shots.
Once the debate actually started, however, this excitement soon gave way to disappointment. As voters, we all expected the night to begin with a foray into scandal from which it would never emerge, forcing us to compare Trump's lewd comments on an Access Hollywood bus with Clinton's paid speeches for Goldman Sachs. We all expected Trump to say something reminiscent of a banana republic dictator, like threatening to jail his political opponent if elected. We all expected the debate to be framed as the latest episode of a reality TV show approaching its season finale, with its producers straining for more plot twists to retain the interest of its viewers.
We all expected that when the debate veered into policy, it would lack substance. Answering a question on the Affordable Care Act, both candidates recycled stump-speech talking points and lofty rhetoric lacking clear-cut solutions; predictably, Clinton spent her two minutes defending it while Trump used his to chaotically attack it. In a debate so focused on scandal and partisan play, the moderators themselves seemed to have no interest in delving into the issues. Even questions on Trump's "locker room talk" could have been framed within the context of sexual assault on college campuses.
But perhaps there was a better way of formatting this debate, and presidential debates in the future. Let's dispense of the broad-stroke themes of national security or the economy, taxes or healthcare. Why not focus these debates on the local issues of the very cities hosting them?
Consider the example of St. Louis -- a city whose narrative has embodied America's narrative since the days of Lewis and Clark, far beyond its quintessentially American love for beer and baseball. By any measure, the St. Louis of today is home to both visions of America projected by our presidential candidates over the past fifteen months. Some of these storylines are signs of resilient success after the Great Recession. For the past few years, St. Louis has been home to a resurgent economy, with more start-ups as a percentage of total businesses than anywhere else in our country. It has transformed into a mecca of biotechnology and medicine, largely due to the efforts of the very university hosting the debate. With a sizeable and long-established Bosnian refugee population, St. Louis could even provoke and inform conversations about the anxieties people feel about integrating Syrian refugees into our society today.
Others, however, are symptomatic of greater, unresolved challenges. Ferguson, a city which has become the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting the pervasiveness of police brutality and racial injustice in America, is only six miles away from the gym where the debate took place last week. Across the river, past the Gateway Arch, lies East St. Louis, a forgotten suburb whose demographics are an artifact of segregated housing laws and white flight, and whose crime rate is, without exaggeration, one of the highest on the planet.
A conversation centered on the local issues of St. Louis, like community policing, charter schools, or economic development in struggling municipalities, would have made the debate more meaningful to voters. It would allow us to observe our candidates in action, and see how their ideas will change our neighborhoods, influence our schools, and affect our lives and those of loved ones. In light of the dysfunction and delusion of the last debate, thinking locally can bring back the substance we so desperately need in this election.