The Debate about Debates
You already know what’s going to happen: Clinton will avoid questions about her emails, and Trump will interrupt her about a thousand times.
By Daniel C. Wilcox, University of Texas at San Antonio
As I write this, I’m watching the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on CBS.
At the same time that this circus is airing, the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers are locked in a hard-hitting affair on NBC, a game both teams need desperately to win to keep pace in their respective divisions. On TBS, the Texas Rangers are fighting for their very lives in an elimination game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Both of these events are more honest and urgent than what I’m currently watching. So why, oh why am I sitting through this? Because I’m told I have to, because it’s my civic duty to participate in the democratic process, to get familiar with where the candidates stand on “the issues.”
But do I really need to watch the debate? It’s difficult for me to say yes. If this is really an earnest look at “the issues,” why do I feel like I’m not learning anything about the candidates I didn’t already know? As I watch this freak show stumble to its conclusion, I’ve drawn a conclusion of my own: The debates are not necessary at all—unnecessary to watch or to even stage. Allow me to enumerate my position.
1. Finger-pointing Pointlessness
The first thing Anderson Cooper brought up was Donald Trump’s recent boner. Great. We face a war with ISIS, a pending energy crisis, an ongoing environmental crisis and a vacant SCOTUS seat. So how do we spend the first hour of the most pivotal debate of the year?
“You should apologize.”
“No, you should apologize.”
Anyone who has children or has worked with children has been privy to this exchange before: A flaccid sense of accountability followed immediately by finger-pointing. And one of these children is going to lead the country.
Look, at this point, who gives a shit? When Trump’s comments surfaced, did you actually expect it to have any effect? By now Trump’s been heard slagging off Mexicans, Muslims and anyone else within his blast radius. His popularity has hardly wavered as a consequence.
Trump also hasn’t learned that Clinton’s email conspiracy controversy has completely fallen on deaf ears, so why keep bringing it up? It’s not something that’s going to change voters’ minds about her, least of all her constituents’. Between Trump’s mouth and Clinton’s email server, they’re not just beating a dead horse anymore, they’re beating its ghost.
2. Debates Are Outdated
In the time before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, words moved at a glacial pace. If a candidate made a comment about their opponent, they’d have to wait for that statement to get published in the next day’s newspaper or reported on the evening news. After reading or hearing it, the target would have to respond in the following day’s paper. That’s potentially a 72-hour turnaround.
These days—with Tweets and CNN reports flying around our heads at the speed of light, probably giving us all cancer—no one has to wait to respond anymore. If you look at the rhetoric of the last few months, Trump and Clinton have already been in engaged in head-to-head debates on the daily.
Within hours of one’s comment, the other has a chance to respond.
Back in the stone age, Kennedy and Nixon needed the debates—the American public deserved to see them address each other directly. For today’s candidates, immediate back-and-forth discourse is a prosaic luxury, which in turn makes the debates themselves an archaic formality.
3. No Outsiders Allowed
Everyone mourns about this issue, but no one does anything to amend it. If, aside from the debates, you were otherwise in complete ignorance of the current election, you could be forgiven for believing that Trump and Clinton are the only two people running for office. This is because third-party candidates are forbidden from participating in the presidential debates unless they meet a specific polling requirement. The criteria are set forth by the Commision on Presidential Debates, the committee that organizes and schedules all of the televised events you see every election year. The CPD may sound like some detached, omniscient entity that hovers above the proceedings like some stoic angel of justice, but the truth is the organization is a joint effort by the Republican and Democratic committees.
It almost appears as though the two parties are boxing out intruders to keep the Oval Office (whisper, whisper) in house. Ignoring the profound potential for corruption such a coalition presents, the whole notion of it flies in the face of what’s honked about as the “democratic process.” Do Americans sincerely have a choice if they’re forced to choose between a mere two people?
Antitrust laws were enacted in this country to prevent this breed of oligopoly. Sadly, it appears as though that legislative sense of fairness does not extend to the policymakers themselves. It’s not enough that third-party candidates are banned from participating in the debates; they can’t even protest their exclusion outside of the building for fear of arrest. Goodbye, First Amendment!
4. Fuel for the Hate Machine
I’m no spring chicken; I’m old enough to remember a time when candidates shook hands before and after debates. I remember when they didn’t interrupt one another incessantly, and when something as innocuous as a sigh was regarded as disrespectful.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are treating this campaign like a pre-fight MMA presser. No respect, no humility. Bickering and name calling. Trump wastes his allotted two minutes explaining how when elected he’s going to get Clinton implicated for her email scandal (for God’s sake, let it go). When asked to name one quality she respects in her opponent, Clinton makes a half-assed comment about the Trump kids, then spends the rest of her time endorsing herself. Certainly she could’ve pointed to one aspect of Trump’s business acumen that she admired. She evidently doesn’t hate his money.
I get it. These two don’t like each other. That’s fine. I’m rather okay with that. I prefer my politicians not to be chummy with one another anyway, because when they are, I fear I’m the one getting the shaft. The least they could do is try to foster some modicum of mutual respect, because their venom is trickling down to their constituents. Trump has issued a thinly veiled invitation for his supporters to exercise their second amendment right against Clinton. Clinton has come out and called Trump’s supporters “deplorable.”
What these two seem to forget is that eventually this campaign is going to end, and one of them is going to be the leader of the country. When that happens, the defeated candidate’s supporters aren’t going to just wither away like some toenail fungus. Those people are still going to be around. How are these two going to reconcile with everyone they’ve insulted along the way? You can’t help but feel that any victory claimed in this election will be a pyrrhic one.
Well, at least now that the debate’s over I can go back to watching the true American pastime: Baseball (where the team from Canada comes out the victor). ‘Murica!