The U.S. Presidential Debate is Dead

The American presidential debate is dead. You probably missed it, for its life was short and largely non-televised. Unfortunately, we are now haunted by the shambling corpse of a debate littered with questions asking candidates about pop culture references and political branding over actual policy content.

The presidential debate was largely born in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas spent seven consecutive days in various locations throughout Illinois, discussing the policies of the time and the direction of the nation at large. The events were described as electric, with citizens coming from far and wide to listen to talks about popular sovereignty, slavery, and states’ rights. The format allowed for each politician to take a nuanced position. The first candidate would speak for sixty minutes, while the opponent was given ninety minutes to respond, followed by a thirty-minute rejoinder. While no modern television audience would watch a debate of this magnitude and stamina, it provides a useful contrast when placed next to the three presidential debates of the 2016 election.

Unfortunately, the debate outlined in 1858 died many years ago. In 1960 when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated for the first time on national television was truly when the debate platform shifted. That is not to say that political campaigns were not carefully orchestrated before this, but this event showed that appearance was what mattered most. Kennedy built a brand that day. He exuded youth, confidence and expertise through his appearance and his demeanor. Nixon, wearing a suit that was a bit too large, and a bit too wrinkled looked out of place and unprepared, at times even denying the opportunity to respond to direct attacks of his positions.

In an eerily circumstantial moment, Kennedy quoted the House Divided speech delivered by Lincoln. The irony of invoking Lincoln, the man who helped birth the true presidential debate format, while Kennedy was unknowingly killing it should not be lost on the viewer. The 2016 presidential debates are filled with moments like this, referencing still popular phrases like “big government”, even mentioning the previous Hungarian refugee crisis. Overt references to Russian power makes the issues discussed resonate with the past and the present. Paradoxically, people who listened to the debate on the radio reported they thought Nixon had won. Television viewers told a different story and being able to see Kennedy and Nixon in action made all the difference. Image matters, brand matters, likeability matters, and evidently, issues don’t.

The current debate platform is no longer an asset to the American people, the election or to the democracy. Random and seemingly unrelated questions are aimed at candidates for a miniscule amount of time with almost no response time built in. This means there can be little dialogue between the candidates to address important policy issues. The incessant need to reduce important policy down to its simplest form is indicative of the poison within our politics. The format is further degraded by the inclusion of a candidate like Donald Trump, who insists on breaking the rules, speaking over his opponents, and cutting off the moderators’ mid-stream, all while having the audacity to suggest he is not being given enough time to respond. In fact, in the first debate, he spoke for four additional minutes compared to Secretary Clinton and interrupted her nearly forty times, according to ABC. He’s not the sole person to blame though. Mr. Trump just further showcases the flaws already present in the way we vet and manage our presidential candidates. The debates and the moderators show little control, mastery of the issues, or accountability as they currently exist.

What you are watching is a transaction. Potential candidates and party leaders are making a trade with the news networks and media outlets. They are trading exposure for credibility, ratings and authority. Candidates thrive off of exposure. They need their name in the news to build a brand for themselves in order to rank highly in the polls. This exposure provided by key networks like Fox News and CNN generates heightened ratings and profit increases. More can be said about the role of the media in the election and the responsibility and integrity it must uphold while reporting. Policy position discussions only made up 11 percent of this year’s election press coverage, which conveys additional underlying issues that exist within media and politics. In an era in which Americans increasingly distrust the press, these networks need credibility and authority, which can be gained by hosting an event like a presidential debate. The first presidential debate this year had no fewer than 80 million viewers. When an event like the debates is entirely transactional from the outset, it is uniquely disqualified from being meaningful in any way. When looking at the current political environment, this is hardly the only disqualifying factor.

Debates took a turn for the worse when the Commission on Presidential Debates took ownership in 1988. The debate format became restricted by the grip of both major political parties. Have you ever wondered why third party candidates so rarely make it to the main debate stage or why in the year 2000 the rule was changed to require candidates to poll at least 15 percent in order to be included? It’s because the Commission is jointly sponsored by the Democratic and Republican parties, who have no interest in including third party candidates that typically don’t poll well. This limits overall exposure for third party candidates and restricts the national conversation to two simplified perspectives.

If looking for further proof that the current debate format is a disaster, one needs only to look into the League of Women Voters, the body responsible for moderating the debates before the Commission took over. The League backed out of participating in the debates in 1988 and released a scathing statement, saying that they had, “no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.” This was a response to pressure from both major party campaigns insisting on unprecedented control over the debate format, questions asked, and audience composition.

The integrity of the presidential debate has been compromised beyond repair, causing more harm than good to the public’s perception of the democratic system that is in place. This problem cannot be fixed by simply varying the format and asking harder questions. If the American people want true presidential debates with tough questions asked that the candidates haven’t seen ahead of time and unscripted answers, it is time to demand that the debates be overseen by a collection of other non-partisan stakeholders like the League of Women Voters to ensure the integrity of debate lives up to its original form.

Moving forward, it is crucial for Americans, fellow politicians and the media to acknowledge the importance of debate and maintaining its integrity for years to come. We can look back on previous debates but especially during this election year and use these debates as examples of the negative implications associated with disrupting and meddling within democracy in order to promote partisan agendas.

Image source: Mary Altaffer, AP

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