Why are the Presidential Debates so Boring and Awful?
Updated: Jan 31
As I was watching the Democratic debates this week I found myself asking, why are presidential debates boring and hard to sit through? Was it always this way? While political pundits will be dissecting and analyzing the candidates’ responses for days to come, I’d like to offer some observations on the state of presidential debates themselves.
Last I checked, the New York Times has identified twenty-four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. At least, that’s the total number of Democratic candidates you might have actually heard of (the actual number of Democrats running for president is closer to 260).
Does anyone think the sheer volume of candidates is a good thing? Take a look at the image above of the faces of those running. The magnitude of faces almost assaults the senses and feels like staring at one of those magic eye illusions where you’re expecting some clarity to eventually emerge. Worse still, the brain is forced to reduce each face down to a simple-word-association game: Bernie = socialist; Yang = UBI; Harris = black female; Booker black male; Buttigieg = gay mayor; Biden = former VP; Tulsi = anti-war; and so on. There’s little room for truly contemplating any nuance between candidates or their positions, temperaments, or experiences.
The more cynical side of me would say that’s because these candidates—and much of the Democratic party—lacks actual ideas and that they’re all reading from the same playbook which recommends MORE GOVERNMENT to any problem whatsoever—a sentiment perfectly captured by Harris’ insistence that “America doesn’t want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Perhaps the only true way to differentiate them from one another is to fall back on a sort of surface-level identification game of gender, age, race, and sexual orientation.
Then again, how reasonable is it to expect these candidates to engage in something that approaches a debate over ideas when the entire process is designed to give them mere minutes to express their views and then be subjected to their opponents’ attempts at squeaking in a couple of zingers? Debate in this format doesn’t work for the same reason complex topics on Twitter often devolve into reactionary name-calling.
And making matters worse, the media seems complicit in the chicanery, asking questions that—by design—illicit reactionary responses from the other candidates rather than deep contemplation. Notice how each time a candidate is asked to comment on something another candidate said we get the split-screen showing how each candidate will react. This format has more in common with reality TV than with reality.
The candidate who has put the most effort into his ideas—in my opinion—is Andrew Yang. I rarely agree with his policy proposals, as I’ve written here. But Yang is refreshingly forthright, vulnerable, open, and articulate. He has appeared on numerous conservative and libertarian programs that would likely be hostile to his ideas and meticulously laid out his vision and responded to criticism. Just listen to how blown away Dave Rubin is by how open Yang was to any question. Well then, how did Yang fair in the opening debates?
I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but the fact that these debates are not a format for the exchange of complex ideas has got to be one of them. So, who’s to blame? Can we blame the candidates? What more could we expect them to do? If they tried to engage in any meaningful nuance they’d likely get buried in a process designed to reward reactionary zingers. Can the media be blamed? Would anyone watch the debates if the media gave TEN people ample time to truly lay out their ideas and be cross-examined by the other nine? Who in their right mind wants to listen to Joe Biden for any longer than they absolutely have to?
The dizzying number of candidates is not only confusing, it’s optically embarrassing. This looks like a party that can’t reign in its members and has succumb to chaos. And I don’t mean that in a partisan sense. This isn’t a Democratic problem so much as it’s a political party problem. After all, twenty candidates is only slightly worse than the seventeen Republican candidates who ran for president in 2016. Here again we were subjected to “debates”—a generous word in an age of slogans and soundbites—that were so overcrowded the contenders were split between a varsity and jv league. And those “debates” ended up rewarding the candidate least fit for the office of president.
A lot of these problems would go away if there were simply fewer candidates. So, why aren’t there fewer candidates? Here again, there are probably lots of reasons. But I have in mind at least two primary culprits:
First – The opposition party seems to believe they’re going to win
In 2016 the smart money was that a Republican would be the next president of the United States, long before we knew who might get the nomination. Obama had successfully won two national elections but it didn’t escape the Republican party’s attention that, under Obama’s leadership, Democrats hadn’t suffered greater losses since President Eisenhower. Whoever assumed the Democratic leadership mantle in 2016 was going to have a difficult time beating the Republican challenger.
President Trump’s lackluster popularity and tendencies to Tweet like an escaped monkey from a cocaine study—to borrow Jonah Goldberg’s phraseology—have energized the Democrats this round. The potential for a Democrat to win in 2020 seems—to the extent anything can truly be known in political elections—almost inevitable. So long as one secures the nomination, they are going to have an easier time at winning the general election. Supposedly. So why not go for it now?
Second – The parties are too weak to stop them
The first reason is more an accident of timing. The second reason is very much a product of our own making. The political parties—both the Democratic and Republican parties—have lost most of their power over the past couple of decades. And that power was wielded by both parties to stop the very circuses we’ve witnessed these past two election cycles. Neither party would have tolerated a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders; two people who decried the very parties they ran under. And, back in the day, both parties could have prevented candidates such as Trump and Sanders from ever getting off the ground.
Precisely what changed and how the parties were able to do this is a complex topic outside the immediate purview of this post. If the reader is truly interested I highly recommend the first five or so episodes of Jon Ward’s podcast The Long Game, which does an incredible job explaining how the parties lost so much power.
The point is that the loss of power in our political parties ultra-democratized the process. The parties no longer filter through all the possible candidates and present their members with a select few who are carefully vetted and guaranteed to have the best long-term interests of the party in mind.
Now it’s a free-for-all where any nut job who amasses enough support can steal the stage and, as 2016 demonstrated, even beat out all the other candidates and become president. For, while I was no fan of Trump’s debate style it cannot be denied he stood-out from all the other faceless candidates whose well-rehearsed speech was so filtered through focus groups it was devoid of any originality or heart. If we turn the political process into a reality TV game we shouldn’t be surprised when a reality TV star outperforms the rest.
But does anyone actually prefer the process as it stands now? Does anyone truly feel they are well represented by the candidates trotted out? Even if they have a candidate or two they prefer, do they want this many to chose from? And does this process truly produce a candidate that’s best fit for the office of President? When George Washington took the oath of office he was barely audible. One wonders how the Father of the Nation would have fared on a debate stage designed to exploit and exaggerate every irrelevant personal quirk.
What, then, is the solution? Strengthen the parties. Give them back the power to filter out candidates and limit them to a more reasonable level so that they not only truly represent the long-term interests of the parties they hail from, but they’ll be all the more likely to engage in meaningful debate knowing that they don’t have to compete in a mindless gotcha game on stage with nine other contenders.
Anyone following Saving Elephants for any length of time will notice the common theme of the need for revitalized institutions in our lives. Healthy institutions develop character and act as an intermediary between the individual and the collective. We spend most of our lives inhabiting institutions and, when they are functioning well, our lives are enriched by them. Our political parties are no exception. Love them or hate them, all of us are better off when they are strong and vibrant and all of us have to endure another round of “debates” like we witnessed this week when they are not.