Calling Presidential debates debates is an abuse of the term debate; the bigger abuse, however, is to make Americans believe such debates are a good way to learn about candidates.
Las Vegas is hosting the next Democratic debate Wednesday evening, and if it’s anything like the debate in Iowa, Nevadans will be watching closely to decide whom they will vote for in their upcoming primary. Debate, however, is a very loose term in the political realm, used to describe anything between a glorified group question-and-answer to a hissy fit between two candidates. But those are only debates in name. Actual debates are structured and have the purpose of candidates interacting with each other. Now, most of these “debates” are conducted with the candidates interacting with the moderator instead of each other. Not only is this a perversion of the very word, debate, but it is a dangerous slippery slope which we are leading society down.
Where to begin with the problems that arise in political debate? Let’s start with the sheer number of candidates. During the first 2019 Democratic debate there were so many candidates that they had two nights of debate, each with ten candidates on stage. Yes, many candidates dropped off and the pool has narrowed but even during the most recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire there were still seven candidates on stage and there were at least eleven different topics covered. These are complex topics including impeachment, poverty, the supreme court, opioids, healthcare and more. Candidates don’t have much time to answer questions and explain their view or what they are planning to do about it. There is no room to describe more complex policy, only to give the audience an answer that the candidates think they want to hear. In turn, this leads to generalized answers where they are all claiming to do the same thing but not necessarily discussing how they will do this particular thing.
At its heart, debate is an educational practice engineered to broaden our understanding.
Another problem with these debates is the way that moderators decide how much time candidates have to speak. Typically what happens is the candidates with the highest polls get the most time to speak, leaving out candidates who might be lacking in marketing but still deserve the opportunity to share their ideas with the public. This results in a similar issue as the lack of time spent on topics: the generalization of ideas. The American public is a diverse one and are all looking for candidates who can reflect their own values and ideals. Ultimately these debates have a valuable goal, but the way they are implemented makes them useless and even dangerous to the American public.
Debate is a tool. It is not for entertainment or show. Debate is supposed to be used to find answers and to study different views, ideas, and concepts. It takes a microscope to our societal norms and questions our government and preconceived notions. At its heart, debate is an educational practice engineered to broaden our understanding.
From party debates to presidential debates, our political debates do not reflect the values of debate. Instead, political debates actively work against some of these values. They don’t promote understanding or deep thought; they work to reaffirm views that people already have. From the sound tracks they use to the crowds of people who watch them, political debates are for entertainment under the guise of political participation of everyday citizens. In this upcoming election, I must urge every citizen to not rely on political debates to choose which candidate they vote for, but to do their own research on candidates and find out the policies and pasts of candidates for themselves. Our democracy lies in the hands of our citizens. Who we are and what we do today will determine our future.
Photo: Debate 10.4.12 by Southern Arkansas University on Flickr