Instead of panicking, we need to think our way through the U.S. election

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I watched Monday's debate and by the end had no idea who "won."

It seemed to me Clinton was often arch, artificial and embarrassing: "I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And I did. You know what else I prepared for? ... to be president."

Trump was his usual moronic self but looked calm and made some decent, mildly outside-the-box points: on trade, on U.S. policy being responsible for the rise of Daesh, and about Clinton having experience but it's the bad kind. (She still reveres Henry Kissinger, which nearly made Bernie Sanders retch.)

When it ended, I was stumped on how this confusing mix might affect viewers but within seconds, the screens were full of commentators declaring Clinton's total, brilliant victory. She'd been relaxed, masterful, and trapped Trump. Her line on preparing for president got replayed as proof of genius. In coming days, print pundits said the same.

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik called it "a rout ... that seemed arranged by a God ..." Frank Rich called it "a miracle ... a pitch-perfect response to the boor ..." They are the genuinely thoughtful voices, far more reflective than the chorus at the New York Times like Amy Chozick: "Hillary Clinton, at ease onstage, seems utterly herself." Or the fanboys and girls at CNN. How do they know these things so swiftly and certainly?

They don't, said someone. It's just their way of saying, Vote for Hillary. In politics, we tend to see what we want or need to. You're looking for an outcome, yearning for it. But they said it so confidently that I think if I rewatched the debate after hearing them, I might really see the masterful Hillary. It's a great example of manufacturing consent.

Let me freely confess that I share their predilection. I shudder at the idea of Trump winning. But I'm saying that's a given, not a proven. It's what you start with. And that may suffice when it's a choice between an idiot and Clinton. What, though, of political cases that require actual thought, not prejudgments?

For instance, Lesser Evil Voting. That takes more than a gutcheck. People get genuinely perplexed over whether to vote Green (in the U.S.) or Green or NDP (here) in order to stop the greater Evil (Trump or Harper). How and where do you learn to think your way politically through that? It's not in school. Or is it?

Actually, public education in its 19th-century origins was mainly about teaching kids to be citizens: acquiring the political skills. Back then democracy was still a daring, minority project in the world. It's since become a piety. There are still citizenship classes but they're often about how Parliament works, versus how to think politically. Moulding citizens got replaced by creating knowledgeable, adaptable individuals, which sounded "progressive" at the time.

Perhaps we should be grateful to the threat of a Trump presidency for putting citizenship back on the agenda. People seem profoundly worried about large questions like the fate of the species if he wins power. Figuring out how to act to prevent that suddenly looks as useful as how to write a resumé.

I don't think it's clear how teaching to think politically would look. Probably like teaching how to think at all. I'm pretty sure that can only be learned from others, i.e., fellow students and teachers. In fact, I think that thinking is largely an imitative process, like learning to speak or walk. A good teacher models clear thinking -- questioning, puzzling, even physiognomically -- and kids pick it up. It's not something easily put online; it's so human.

Let me end with an example of why it's urgent to think -- and not just panic -- our way through the current U.S. election.

If Clinton manages to put down Trump, it would probably simply restart the cycle that led to Trump in the first place: an unequal economy, privileges to the rich, Mideast interventions leading to terror backlashes in the west -- the whole catastrophe repeated -- paving the way for another but likely smarter Trump, who might be watching now and thinking: what a dolt, it's there for him to take but he's too stupid.

That's why it's important to not over enthuse for Clinton as commentators did on debate night. She, too, is the problem and other solutions are demanded -- short term, not just long.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Bill B/flickr

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