Another presidential debate? Honestly, at this point, why bother?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as political as they come. I eat it up as much as the next politico, hang on every word, read between the lines, and debate the finer points with my fellow nerds for weeks. I have no lack of interest in watching two mediocre communicators interrupt each other and try to make each other appear more ridiculous than themselves.
What I’m saying is, why bother calling it a debate?
Remember the days when presidential debates were about substantive public policy issues? Maybe… Remember when the presidential debates followed something resembling the rules of debate? If you do, I want to meet your dietician, because you’ve been around awhile.
When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to advocate for the adoption of the Constitution, it was considered to be material for the common reader. That is, any literate person over the age of ten or so was expected to be able to pick up their local newspaper and read the Federalist one week and the Anti-Federalist the next week as the two sparred with each other.
Pick up a copy of the Federalist Papers and don’t kid yourself that you’ve seen public dialogue like that in living memory.
When Abe Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, it was typical to travel from city to city, debate for several hours, send the crowd home for dinner, and continue debating long into the night. The orators took for granted that everyday voters would easily follow what today stays buried in historical treatises.
And not just the depth.
There is a reason we have the rules of debate, and it causes me physical pain as a trained debater that crisp, straightforward, logical argumentation is totally absent from our public policy discussion. The advocate presents a plan in a constructive speech. The opponent responds in a constructive speech. The two trade cross examination, and spar over the course of a few rebuttals. You stay on point, cite sources, respond to each other’s ideas, and only say things you can freaking back up with some semblance of credible reason.
This is the standard that we expect of nerdy high schoolers who want to go to state with their debate club. Why in the name of all that is good do aspiring senators and presidents get away with the circus that election debates have become?
It all started with the advent of mass media.
In 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were having it out for the presidency and participated in the nation’s first televised debate. The dialogue resembled that of a college level policy debate in which both sides took clear positions, traded comparisons of their political experience, and made their respective cases for why the voters should trust them.
Those who heard the debate on the radio largely said Nixon made better arguments, but those who saw it on TV were swept with Kennedy’s presence on camera. So for all that, suave powers of communication won out over arguments. (Kennedy even admitted point blank that people should vote for him because of his party affiliation rather than his personal experience. Try getting away with that in our day and age… Oh, wait.)
Somewhere in the five decades since that first TV debate, we’ve just stopped caring.
Maybe it was when Reagan destroyed Mondale with the “youth and inexperience” joke in 1984. Maybe it was Ross Perot’s “loud sucking sound.” Or maybe, just maybe, it was regular voters like you and I giving up caring about the quality of ideas when we had to choose between that and the sparkly wrapping paper the bad ideas came in.
If politicians give the people what they want, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.