July 31, 2020


Let's Cancel the Presidential Debates Forever (Alex Shephard, 7/31/20, The New Republic)

Every election cycle brings helpful souls out of the woodwork, pitching a new wave of ways to fix our broken presidential debates. There is a constant refrain: Dial down the pageantry and ratchet up the sobriety. It is a truth universally acknowledged that live audiences, more keen on hooting and hollering than listening, distract from the proceedings. This not only gives debates the atmosphere of an early-round NBA playoff game, but it also underlines the fact that what is happening is a spectacle, not anything of substance. In 2016, Donald Trump's decision to bring three women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and assault to a debate with Hillary Clinton served to demonstrate that these once stately affairs had, like almost all political pseudo-events, been overtaken by the drive to stage an ever-escalating series of viral stunts. (Trump's 2016 escapade has been cited, unsurprisingly, as a reason to get rid of audiences entirely.)

The presence of an audience does have substantive implications as well. Research from Williams College psychology professor Steven Fein has found that judgments about the candidates were significantly affected by the reactions of the live audience; cheers following a one-liner cements that moment in the minds of viewers, Ronald Reagan's famous 1984 "youth and inexperience" debate zinger being an early example. The reaction from the audience, Fein and his coauthors found, "did not recognize Reagan's quip as a knockout punch, so much as it made it one." The result of these incentives, Fein said in 2016, "also makes the clip likely to get highlighted in the post-debate news and spin cycles," which then gives it an exponential reach. The result is a system that favors cable-ready wisecracks and viral badinage over substantive policy discussions. 

The debate moderators are not just there to tease out the ways that would-be presidents might approach matters of state. Nowadays it's just as important for them to play a role in ensuring that hot soundbites and zesty onstage conflict occur so that cable news panels can ponder their providence in the days and weeks that follow. In some cases, the questioning exists for no other reason than in its perceived value in some yet-to-be-aired cable news segment. There was, for instance, little substantive discussion of health care--either the flaws of the American health care system now or what candidates would do to fix those flaws--in the dozens of Democratic debates that took place in 2019. Instead, candidates were asked again and again if they would abolish private insurance. (The only consistent qualification for moderating a primary debate seems to be not taking "no" for an answer.) 

Debate moderators have long since stopped asking questions to serve the public interest, keeping instead the 24-hour news trough full of content. The candidates, of course, play along, knowing full well that minds (and remotes) wander when the on-screen goings-on aren't spicy enough.

Posted by at July 31, 2020 6:58 AM