There are moments when the gap between what is happening in the United States and the way we conduct our politics seem especially glaring.
I felt that powerfully on Wednesday morning, as two disturbing stories from the South competed for attention in the news cycle.
The first story concerned Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old boy who brought an electric clock he'd made himself to his high school. Instead of being impressed by this feat, the school called the cops, claiming that the clock looked like a bomb. When one of the officers saw him, he said, "Yup. That’s who I thought it was." It goes without saying that if Ahmed Mohamed's name was Adam Morris, nothing would have happened to him. We have created such a climate of racism towards Muslims in this country that a high school freshman can be handcuffed for the crime of being good at science while wearing a NASA t-shirt.
The other story was about Richard Glossip, a prisoner who is set to be executed in Oklahoma despite very strong evidence that he is innocent. Oklahoma has a hideous history with the death penalty. It has used lethal drugs on prisoners that left them writhing in agony for protracted periods of time without dying. Three people on the state's death row have been exonerated in the last decade alone. That hasn't stopped Glossip's execution from going forward; in fact, the prison where he's being killed is already handing out cookies to the reporters who will witness his death.
Update: Glossip's execution has been delayed.
In one morning, then, we have two stories that highlight, respectively, the pervasive Islamophobia in America and our deeply troubled criminal justice system. But does anyone really think that, if these two issues are even raised at all, they will be handled with anything approaching seriousness at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate on CNN?
The obvious answer is no. Instead, we are likely to get a slugfest that lives down to the smallness of our political culture.
Make no mistake: The debate is sure to be entertaining. CNN has been promoting it explicitly like a boxing match—"This is Round 2 of a heavyweight bout," network president Jeff Zucker told the LA Times recently—and promising that the candidates are going to spend quality time sparring with each other. It's being held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in the vast hangar that houses Reagan's Air Force One and always lends any event there a slight air of decadent shamefulness, as if we'd walked in on the filming of Republican pornography.
Once again, Donald Trump—the subject of 2,159 separate CNN reports since June—will be front and center, with everyone trying to land some sort of blow on him. Jeb Bush has been practicing his zingers, a fact that feels indescribably sad in some way. People like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul will be desperately attempting to claw their way back into relevance. Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz will both say something insane. Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Ben Carson will also be there and will definitely have comments to make, which is the most I can say about them.
CNN's best anchor, the ever-sharp Jake Tapper, will be moderating the debate, meaning that it might not descend totally into stupidity. For good measure, Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host who recently infuriated Trump by having the nerve to ask him if he knew about what's going on in the Middle East, will be asking some questions too, as will CNN's very seasoned Dana Bash.
But I can't shake the feeling that it will all be for naught—that the essential vacuity of top-flight American politics will win the day. Perhaps it's futile to judge these encounters as if they were anything more than performative exercises, but they do represent the most sustained opportunity that people have to see these candidates in action. Will we come away from the debate buzzing about some heated argument or other? Probably. Will it be good television? Yes. Will we see an event capable of addressing what happened to Ahmed Mohamed or Richard Glossip in a way that feels worthy of them? I highly doubt it.