Tuning into the first presidential debate of 2020, one could easily think CBS was gearing up to show the next WWE Super Showdown. The dramatic opening music, intense lighting and garish graphics splashed on the screen created a heightened sense of spectacle. And just like in the WWE, presidential debates in the United States are largely choreographed dances with no real stakes, substance, or standard of quality. Candidates come prepared to hammer home certain topics and avoid others, moderators often ask questions disconnected from widespread citizen interest, and viewers–according to pre-debate polls–likely already have their minds made up. So how are the presidential debates still necessary, productive, or valuable to the election and the democratic process? The answer is simple: they aren’t.
In 1960, the first televised presidential debate in American history took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. That debate was, and remains today, widely regarded as a turning point in that election. It allowed millions of undecided Americans to see the candidates unfiltered and live, and the results were decisive. Nixon looked old, sweaty, nervous, and was in pain from an injury. Kennedy, on the other hand, cleverly utilized makeup and his natural charm to win over viewers. As the Nixon-Kennedy example shows, presidential debates in the United States have never been purely about policy, and human nature dictates that electoral politics will always include an element of intangible personal preference.
It goes without saying that we have come a long way culturally and technologically since 1960. The debate once served as a vital and unique way for voters to see candidates, but voters today have constant access to candidates, whether it be through their social media accounts or their live-streamed rallies. Certain candidates (especially Trump) abuse modern technology, delivering what is essentially propaganda directly to voters’ phones and TVs. But the idea that the debate (and an unbiased moderator) will hold candidates accountable in a different way, and provide a crucial flow of information, has been proven false. Candidates are generally able to deliver their party and campaign messages without much ideological interference from the moderator or their opponent, and the first debate of 2020 took this even further. Aside from minor exclamations from Joe Biden amidst Trump’s rants, what we saw with this most recent debate was the active spread of misinformation broadcast out onto all of the United States without any correction or censorship at all.
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s four-part litmus test used to identify an authoritarian backs up that Trump’s performance at the first 2020 debate was textbook anti-democratic behavior, and again, this behavior was televised unchecked. Trump continued to call mail-in voting fraudulent, denied Biden’s ability to beat him in a fair and free election, and, in a moment that should go down in infamy, told white supremacist militias to “stand back and stand by.” It was a televised erosion of national trust in our democracy, an attack on the democratic principle of voting, and everyone (including moderator Chris Wallace) was helpless to stop it.
According to some post-debate analysis, Trump’s behavior may have been outlandish enough to hurt his chances this November. But a virtual focus group study during the debate indicated that the utter incoherence of the debate itself might convince some Americans not to vote at all. What’s clear is that the problem goes beyond Trump as an individual. Everything from the questions chosen by Wallace (which focused entirely on topics of the moment and excluded climate change and other key issues) to the rushed and frantic pace and format was a disaster. Simply replacing Trump with a more civil candidate wouldn’t have made the debate informative and well-structured.
In his minimalist concept of democracy, political economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasized the importance of the competitive struggle for the people’s vote in the making of political decisions. Presidential debates in the United States, and the conversations surrounding them, fail to create this competitive struggle. There’s no clear standard (aside from superficial performance-based reasons) for winning and losing; the goal isn’t for candidates to compete for voter support based on the merit of their ideas and their ability to argue them. Throw a chaos agent like Trump into the mix, and the inherent flaws of our debate format are highlighted.
It’s not as if key changes would be impossible to implement. Candidates, for example, could be required to submit written plan proposals before the debate. A third party (perhaps individuals not affiliated with a major news network) could then analyze and evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of these plans, allowing the moderator to be equipped with highly specific questions and critiques that candidates could be pressured to address. In between topics, live fact-checkers could inform viewers if a candidate made a false or misleading statement, and perhaps candidates could even be asked to correct themselves or answer for their mistake. At the very least, moderators should have the ability to mute candidates who are speaking off topic.
Two years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, Nixon wrote in his memoir Six Crises, “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’” Cliché though that statement may be, the loser of the United States’ first televised presidential debate was onto something. Thousands of words are spoken during each debate, yet the most discussed moments inevitably involve an irrelevant, comical soundbite, a shouting match between candidate and moderator, or a fly on someone’s head. We must remember that despite more access than ever to political information, it can still be extremely difficult to clearly understand a candidate’s policies and stances. Debates supposedly provide a much-needed opportunity to fill voters in, but instead leave us more confused, upset, and exhausted than before. In a country barely holding on to democratic principles, we cannot afford to waste opportunities to foster healthy and informative discourse.
*Photo by Gabriel Manlake, “Fly” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license