Modern TV Debates Are Superficial Acts of Theater, Good For Nothing But Shallow EntertainmentPhoto by Joe Raedle/Getty Politics Features Democratic Primary Debates
I set out this morning to write something vaguely substantive about last night’s first Democratic primary debate, even if the substance was a little cynical—”the ten dumbest moments” type of content. But the harder I tried, the more I realized that I couldn’t get past a single nagging truth, which is that the institution of the modern debate itself is fundamentally useless at producing moments of genuine political protein amid the sugary spectacle that is its true and essential character. Yes, a debate with ten ****ing candidates on stage is uniquely suited to chaos and failure, creating a kind of “naive country boy seeing Times Square for the first time” vibe for viewers at home, in which we can only gawk at the bright lights, skim past the policy talk, and leave with faint and fleeting impressions of what we just consumed (“Tim Ryan has the appearance of a deer in headlights, and like a deer, he’s also very bad at talking to humans about politics”). But do you think it’s going to get any better? Do you think the general election debates, feat. DJ Prezzy Troll, will be any less of a godforsaken entertainment circus?
Please. It won’t, and the whole thing has forced me to become that most despicable creature: the debate scold.
First, let me get a stupid little semantics thing out of the way: Part of the problem is how slow speech can be. If you stick around and read this entire article, and you read at an average speed, you will consume it about twice as fast as you would if I were in your living room or office, earnestly reading it at you (and believe me, it will be far less awkward this way). When you factor in commercial breaks and the nightmare scenario of Useless Chuck Todd speaking more than all but three candidates, it’s not possible to take in that much information, even in two hours. The best way to learn about politics, and individual candidates, is to read.
That said, I’m not naive to the fact that many people don’t have the time or inclination to read about politics, and that TV has a unique ability to reach many billions and trillions more people than the written word (assuming the Internet doesn’t break, only seven people will read this article). In theory, even with the limitations noted above, TV should do important work in exposing the issues to the masses.
It does not.
Now, okay, I have seen substantive televised debates. It mostly happens at local levels, when the debate is structured more as a conversation between two people, and the moderator sees his or her role as actually facilitating a discussion. This doesn’t happen anymore at the national level, if it ever did. The production style alone makes it impossible, and here are a few reasons why:
1. The moderators are too aggressive in all the wrong ways. Between setting up the candidates to fail with confrontational questions, loudly interrupting the end of every single answer with “sir, your time is up…SIR, YOUR TIME IS UP,” and even outright lecturing at points, the moderators infantilize the candidates, and make them appear at least a little bit ridiculous and defensive right from the jump. It’s an atmosphere of total pressure, inflicted by people who are a little bit more comfortable on camera, have egos every bit as swollen as the candidates, and thus assume a role of power when they should be serving the viewing public by getting the hell out of the way.
2. The time limits are legitimately insane. Sorry, but anyone who thinks you can say something profound or even halfway complete about a topic like climate change in 45 damn seconds is kidding themselves. It’s the cheery “do more with less!” of the political world, and every bit as unrealistic. At least ninety percent of the answers we saw last night ended with the moderators interrupting, and the malformed points getting lost in the muck of cross-talk. When a candidate did manage to finish on time, it’s because he was Bill DeBlasio and speaking at a New York rate of 9,000 words per minute before screaming out, “I’M WALKING HERE!” and earning standing ovations.
3. It looks and acts like a game show/sporting event. You have time limits, the podia light up in exciting reds and blues, there are winners and losers, it takes place in a huge arena with a huge cheering audience, and the graphics have flashes and the music is dramatic. It is designed to look like a slick production, and that puts you immediately in a very particular anticipatory mindset that is in no way conducive to digesting complex political concepts. I’m not even kidding when I say this: Political debates should be staged between two candidates, three max, on stages with folding chairs behind long folding tables, with poor lighting in some high school cafeteria or decrepit civic center, and nobody should be allowed to clap. Then, at least, we’ll be forced to turn to the actual spoken words for nourishment, rather than literally everything else.
4. Beyond the production, we have no idea how to analyze this. Who do think “won” the debate last night? Your answer likely reflects your existing political values, but to the extent that you’re judging by what you saw last night, I’m guessing your answers are: Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and maybe DeBlasio. I agree. But why? Well, with due respect to our deep powers of intellect, I submit that it’s because they are the best at being on TV. They have the best voices, the best presence, and the best looks, and they’re the best at making 40 seconds of rehearsed political opinion sound spontaneous and profound. They’re the best actors. On the flip side, you have people like Tim Ryan, and while Tim Ryan did (hilariously) make the argument that we should stay in Afghanistan forever, he failed long before that because his eyes are too open and his makeup person decided to make him look like an ashen ghost that haunts some Victorian mansion. He and Jay Inslee and Beto O’Rourke failed because (surprisingly, in Beto’s case) they’re not very good on TV. Or at least they weren’t last night.
Point being, the networks do everything in their power to stage a superficial show, and it works: We judge it superficially. They do too—how many times have you watched a post-debate show on CNN and listened to the vapid “analysis” of Gloria Borger: “I thought Trump was forceful and confident and really spoke directly to the American people.” Nobody talks about substance on TV—you might hear a thing or two about section 1325 today, for which we can thank Julian Castro, but it will not be prominent—and they’ve trained us well to follow their lead.
(Worse, we’re hyper-tuned to the delicious gaffe. Conditioned for the stunning moment, our eyes glaze at the boring policy stuff, and we wait for fireworks. This is why Trump is so successful in the new age, and why the general debates will attract insane ratings from Trump lovers and haters alike, and why they will be even more utterly useless from a policy perspective. In media terms, he truly is the president we deserve.)
I’m not saying there’s nothing to be gleaned from last night. I mean, I already knew that Beto O’Rourke was an enormous phony, but he made it clear last night when he wouldn’t give a straight answer on health care or tax rates, or when Julian Castro plastered his hide to the wall on immigration. There were hints that Amy Klobuchar is just as heartless as stories of her staff treatment indicate. We know that corporate media doesn’t want Tulsi Gabbard to win, based on the fact that she got the only personal “gotcha” question of the night. We know that incompetent flapping DNC boss Tom Perez doesn’t care enough about climate change, since it got relegated to the second hour and lasted maybe 15 minutes at most. We know that Mitch McConnell is a looming hobgoblin for which nobody on stage had any answer beyond “hopefully we win the Senate.” Which I guess is at least honest.
Largely, though, we learned nothing. Six of the ten candidates supported Medicare for All, and six of ten will do the same tonight, but do we really know how hard they’ll fight for it? Or do we just know that Bernie Sanders shifted the discourse to such an extent in 2016 and beyond that they kinda have to say they support it now, since Joe Biden has already cornered the clueless centrist market? Or climate change: Nobody likes it, but how sincere are they in the fight to reverse the literal destruction of our planet?
Maybe it’s impossible to know the answers to these questions until the candidate makes it to the White House, but I’d submit that by reading their plans, listening to their speeches, and noting what they’ve done in their careers to date (cough Cory Booker railing on big pharma was the funniest damn thing we could have possibly seen last night cough), we can learn a whole lot more than we can from a shouty two-hour ruckus.
A modern debate is a useless act of performance, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining, and I’m not saying I won’t be there front and center for the very next one, sucker that I am. All I’m saying is that we should be careful about forming any opinion based on what we witness on that stage—it’s designed for the pleasure centers of the brain, and it’s designed for spectacle. To discern anything meaningful, look elsewhere.