Are presidential debates useful?

Are presidential debates useful?

Justice Lovin


The candidates for the Democratic Party nomination recently agreed to hold at least four more debates before the election. This comes after a number of complaints made by the Bernie Sanders campaign regarding the limited opportunity for debate. Of course, four more debates don’t necessarily guarantee that there will be a less limited quality of debate. In fact, under the current standards and system it is unlikely that any meaningful discourse will take place.

It’s worth keeping in mind that these debates are in no way a requisite part of the American political process either, the first general presidential debates came with the wide spread use of the television in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, and even then debates weren’t a regular thing until 20 years later.

Moreover those debates, unlike ours, gave candidates quite a bit longer than a minute to establish their positions; like much of the rest of televised programming, the debates have become disturbingly superficial.

The current status quo was established in 1987 with the transition of debate sponsorship away from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, that withdrew on the grounds that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” Under the present management, called the Commission on Presidential Debates — essentially extensions of the two main parties — this is exactly what is taking place.

Here is one place where Republicans and Democrats have no trouble getting along, not because of any capacity for compromise or understanding, but because they have a shared goal; the continued hegemony of their two parties over American democracy at every level. Our problems are not limited to the influence of money on politics. Billionaires are not the only ones with disproportionate control, they are not even the worst offenders.

As an example of the conflict of interest between the parties and democratic values, consider that candidates are forbidden from engaging in non-sanctioned debates.

If say, Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders were to have a one on one debate they would both be prevented from participating in further debates within their own parties. This isn’t about what the voters want. It isn’t about the clash of ideas. It’s about control of the political landscape and producing easily digestible, 30-second sound bites that limit the range of discussion.

The debates are farcical in their pretensions of representing the political consciousness of our democracy. The questions are planned, the moderators and networks handpicked by the two-party oligarchy. And the candidates, dependent on the parties for legislative support, are more like celebrity spokespersons than policy makers. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.

What this is, is the two-party system in action. Libertarians, fiscal-conservatives and evangelical Christians share the Republican Party despite their widely differing positions. Similarly, socialists, Keynesians and environmentalists comprise the Democratic Party. In the true spirit of compromise everyone contributes and no one gets what he or she wants.

The question is not are the debates useful, but for whom are they of use? And be sure, it isn’t you or me.