The Problem with Political Debates: First Presidential Debate Was Symptom of Larger Disease

by The Cowl Editor on October 16, 2020


by Sienna Strickland ’22

Opinion Staff

In a country more politically divided than ever, there is one thing the American populace (and even foreigners for that matter) can agree on: the presidential debate was an utter embarrassment. It does not take an expert polls statistician to measure the public’s evident discontent with the debate. All it takes is a quick scroll through any social media platform to observe the data firsthand. 

As opposed to being informative, insightful, or substantive in the slightest, the debate instead played out much more like a WWE mudslinging fight—with the scripted dramatics to match. On Donald Trump’s side came his predictable propensity for interrupting those who are talking, often with inflammatory and sensational remarks. On Joe Biden’s side came subtle smirks and snickers that reeked of smug condescension. From both came refusals to address missteps they have made in the past.

Although the candidates’ childish behavior was certainly the biggest takeaway of the night, comparing their conduct does not get us very far, especially if we wish to revise the clearly flawed debate process in the future. Incivility is a symptom of the larger problem, a system that not only allows this type of conduct in our debates, but also inevitably produces it.

In order to understand how disastrous the debate was, we must understand what these debates purport to accomplish. The point of presidential debates is to help educate those watching understand how to make informed political decisions. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs makes this nearly impossible. 

Debates, which should involve participants engaging critically with the issue at hand, have rather become a combative contest which ends with a shiny prize: the presidency. The word “debate” is therefore an egregious misnomer for what is essentially a glamorized contest which is substantively empty at its core. 

The same revolutionary advances that have been made in the fields of political campaign communication technology that seem undoubtedly beneficial on their surface, are a seriously double-edged sword. Polls are more accurate than ever before. Analysts are able to break down demographics with machine-like efficiency. Campaign outreach has also soared to new heights with the invention of social media, allowing candidates to bypass traditional media, which has continued to be full of curious and critical journalists analyzing the candidates’ claims.

The campaign has more control than ever before over the narrative it chooses to spin, and this power is certainly exploited. The problem is therefore not just the increase in incivility, but the decrease in authenticity. An iconic example of this comes from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, in an interview with The Breakfast Club, during which she tells the Black hosts the food item she must have at all times is hot sauce. Charlemagne tha God responded, “Are you trying to pander to us right now?” To which Clinton answered with a nervous yet maniacal giggle: “Is it working?”

The candidates we see debating have a team of analysts and public relations professionals chirping in their ears   who have carefully dissected what their target demographic wants to hear, as opposed to what the moderator has specifically asked of them. This is because, in the game of politics, an unpolished response is a dangerous one. Campaigns do not want to invite any scrutiny—they want support, they want votes. 

Trump supporters want digs at Biden, and they are distrustful of a career politician who is a part of what they perceive to be a corrupt establishment. Trump’s analysts knew this, and delivered. One of Trump’s most common digs toward Biden was how the former vice president accomplished “nothing” in his 47 years of public service. 

Biden’s supporters want someone to tell the chatty president to finally “shut up”; they want someone who is serious about running the government. Biden’s strategy therefore included dismissing Trump as ridiculous, with  perhaps his most memorable line of the night being: “Will you, shut up, man?” He spoke more to the American people than he did directly to his opponent, because his supporters do not see Trump as someone worth engaging. 

All of this is orchestrated: every strategy, movement, comment, and attack. The way the game of politics is played is fundamentally artificial, posing a huge problem for a system of government that needs more transparency and nuance to conduct conversation properly. In addition to the insincerity comes the format of the back-and-forth insults as opposed to forming coherent responses. Both concepts contribute to a debate format that ultimately fails the American people by neglecting to deliver informative content.

On top of the insincerity plaguing American politics is the waning field of journalism. It is an unreasonable expectation for regular Americans to fact check every claim made by candidates independently, nevermind analyze their ramifications. This is the job of the media, commonly coined “the watchdog” of the republic. 

Unfortunately, journalism is a dwindling field, as it is both underfunded and understaffed. It has resorted to accepting money from anywhere it can, including political advertising. It is reported that essential local media outlets give voters less news in order to make way for more political propaganda, as that is what pays the bills. When a news network suffers from being understaffed, the populations of the areas that network covers subsequently suffer as a result, remaining largely ignorant of potentially huge news stories. Stories that are shared are often more reactive in nature than they are in-depth investigative pieces. The quality of the media has diminished significantly.

For those in power this is an ideal circumstance, as they can exploit the general ignorance of the American populace by feeding them curated public relations messages that are more interested in promoting political propaganda than anything of substance. Without a watchdog media presence able to hold these corporations and campaigns responsible, people are burdened with now having to become their own journalists, being asked to choose from an endless litany of flawed or intentionally misleading information with little to no help.

Our politicians are not above this behavior either. Advances in political campaign communication technology have allowed them to tap into the psychology of their candidates, and the death of journalism has resulted in a lack of accountability. This dysfunctionality of our democracy is perfectly exemplified by the first presidential debate, where outrageous pandering, overgeneralizing, sensationalizing, and mud-slinging to appease the teams’ specific “sides” were all on full display.

         How can we fix this? Many policy proposals have been offered as solutions to improve our debates. Some of these have been proposals to introduce mic-muting measures to prevent candidates from talking over one another and over the specified time limits. Another has been including more than two candidates in the debates to allow for a more fruitful discussion with more diverse viewpoints. 

These political appendages are essential services for the American people, and our democracy will not thrive until we all recognize them as such. These are great ideas that we should all consider, but the work ultimately starts at home. There are two things we can all start doing on the ground today: talking and listening.