Are the Presidential Debates *Too* Entertaining?
11.20.19

A camera pans across a thousand cheering people seated on a velvety red carpet. We zoom over their clapping hands, bathed in neon blue light, and center on a black, glossy stage, where we find 12 lit-up podiums. Behind each one stands a smiling or stoic contestant, dressed to the nines, lit by twinkling spotlights, and hanging over them, like a halo, is the visual centerpiece: a massive, glowing ring of fluorescent blue, dotted with 22 decorative stars. Over the cheers we hear a booming voice, the host, welcoming us to this exciting evening.

The first question on my mind as I watched the fourth 2019 Democratic Debates last month was: Why does this look like an episode of The Voice? At first I found the comparison comical, then unsettling, and finally alarming. But when I consider today’s political landscape, where nothing is too important to be treated like entertainment—grab the popcorn, prepare to live-tweet, proclaim a winner—it’s also unsurprising. Why wouldn’t the debates resemble a gameshow?

But once you back up a little, untether yourself from the expectation that all TV should look like a flashy, technicolor dreamscape, it begins to look more like an oversaturated nightmare. As I looked into the history of political debates, and more broadly, the treatment of politics as entertainment, it wasn’t hard to trace the road that led us here. It was lined with warning signs.

The Night Politics Became an “Aesthetic”

The first televised presidential debate took place in 1960, between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. When I looked it up on YouTube, I was struck by the lack of flash: The two of them sit on plain wooden chairs, flanking host and journalist Frank McGee, who is seated at a nondescript desk. Their suits are plain, the background is drab, and the discourse, too, is dry. JFK’s opening remarks are seven long minutes; Nixon’s are eight. But I soon learned that many believe the taping to be a singular turning point in the history of American politics. And that without these minutes on camera, JFK wouldn’t have secured the presidency.

“It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically—in this case, in a single night,” media historian Alan Schroeder told TIME. Whereas JFK looked tanned and healthy, projecting an air of confidence, Nixon looked sweaty and ill. “As the story goes, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won,” reports TIME. “[But] those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner.” Whether that’s apocryphal, the debate was a boon for JFK’s campaign, and it ultimately birthed a new era in which a politician’s on-screen charisma became paramount to their viability as a candidate.

Over the next 25 years, America would witness a huge cultural overhaul that placed television and imagery at the center of discourse, both political and otherwise. This had the curious effect of imposing some of the governing principles of TV—like its focus on entertainment, expediency, and aesthetics—on reality, and even on the ways the public processed and understood information. One skeptic of this shift was media theorist Neil Postman, whose 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death has enjoyed a wave of critical recognition in the 2010s for being hauntingly prescient. (I’m currently in the middle of it and can attest to this.) If you can imagine the extent to which our modern lives have become governed by dopamine-fueled distraction, it’s not hard to see why.

In the book, Postman claimed that 1985 America, amid the dawn of the digital revolution (cable, video games, computers, walkmans, camcorders), was a fictional dystopia come to life—not the surveillance state predicted in George Orwell’s 1984, but more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman pointed out that while Orwell warned of an external oppression, Huxley foresaw something more self-imposed; a kind of death by distraction. Postman wrote: “As [Huxley] saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. … Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

We may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

Every media revolution invites criticism from the old guard, but it sounds creepily familiar, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s fitting that Postman’s nearly 35-year-old book about a dystopia-turned-reality has, in a way, become that for us. His concerns about digital media can be aptly (if more severely) applied to the modern internet. In a 2017 piece about the book for The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes, “[Postman] worried that television—an environment where facts and fictions swirl in the same space, cheerfully disconnected from the world’s real and hard truths—would beget a world in which truth itself was destabilized.”

One look at the campaigns of today’s biggest news outlets—The New York Times’ “The Truth Is Worth It,” or The Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness”—confirms our modern emphasis on untangling this fact-fictional knot. I know it’s easy to be alarmist about these things, and Postman is quick to point out that progress is often a kind of tradeoff, but he’s also committed to examining what has been lost as print as taken a backseat to a more imagery-based form of storytelling.

Unsurprisingly, Postman disliked how presidential debates had become a work of theater—less focused on policy than performance. As Garber quotes him: “We may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.’” Cue the spotlight and tie painstakingly picked for its assertive shade of oxblood.

The Ripple Effects of “Entertaining” Debates

Eight years after the first televised debate, two public intellectuals named Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley took to the sound stage to debate the 1968 U.S. presidential election. That is to say, to debate about the debates. The conversations were witty, engaging, and unlike anything on TV; they aired as part of ABC’s election coverage. In a 2015 documentary called Best of Enemies, co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville examine these appearances as the birth of American punditry, the 24-hours news cycle, and the reframing of news as entertainment. Watching Vidal and Buckley spar feels like watching TV give birth to The View (i.e. it’s worth the watch).

That politics and its surrounding melee have devolved increasingly into theater isn’t exactly a revelation. The idea’s been unpacked and restated in every cultural think piece since the election of a clownish real estate mogul and reality star to the highest U.S. office in 2016. But this drama doesn’t start and end with Donald Trump, or over-powdered pundits arguing in little boxes on CNN, or a sign that blinks APPLAUSE at debate audiences. It’s baked into how we as spectators (or rather, constituents) react to and engage with politics, and often, how we vote.

Ranking candidates by superficial means, memeing their words, gamifying our voting decisions—these are small ways we as participants in democracy contribute to its theatricality.

The day after the neon-blue 2019 Democratic Debates, I went on Twitter to see how people were reacting and, among your standard jokes about periods, friendlessness, and Keanu Reeves, I found articles ranking the performances of the 12 candidates, proclamations of who “won,” and a stream of jokes about people’s “most surprising friendship”—a riff on Anderson Cooper’s final question, which many considered weak and pandering. It wasn’t unlike chatter I might see in response to a premiere of Love Island. Not that I didn’t laugh:

I also saw a lot of conversation around certain candidates’ “electability”—a word often trotted out after debate performances that inspires a kind of political gaming that has less to do with policy than guessing at other voters’ biases. For instance, I saw some say they won’t vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 election despite being aligned with him ideologically, because they’re worried his age or demeanor will disincentivize others from voting for him. This is referred to as “horse-race politics” for obvious reasons, and it can have unfortunate, self-fulfilling effects (as it can in, say, American Idol finals). What’s maybe more concerning though, is how we’ve come to define “electability” in the first place, and who did the defining.

As Perry Bacon Jr. wrote for FiveThirtyEight, “‘[E]lectability’ at times ends up being used as an all-purpose cudgel against female and minority candidates”—often to disincentivize them from running against more “traditional” candidates, a.k.a. straight white men. But who decides what it means to be “electable”? According to New Republic writer Alex Pareene, the term has historically been defined by economic conservatism, an idea first perpetuated by racist and moneyed interests in the mid-90s. In other words, it’s outdated and regressive, and possibly still informing election outcomes.

None of this is to say that considering how a candidate might fare against another, or how they might carry themselves diplomatically, can’t be useful. But as Pareene notes, “electability” as its commonly understood has been consistently overestimated as a predictor of election outcomes. (Trump’s victory being an apt example.) And yet the emphasis remains. Consider Joe Biden’s presidential bid, which seems almost entirely predicated on the idea that he is the most “electable” candidate. (There’s a great episode of Citations Needed on this phenomenon, for the curious.)

Ranking candidates by superficial means, memeing their words, gamifying our voting decisions—these are small ways we as participants in democracy contribute to its theatricality, which can have the positive effect of engaging people, but more often takes the focus away from change-enacting policy. In my view, this is good news. It means that even though the mechanisms that led to a debate stage that belongs on X Factor are deep-seated and systemic, their proliferation requires some measure of complicity from us. We can take it upon ourselves, then, to resist—by valuing policy over performance, by doing the reading, and perhaps by watching the fifth democratic debate tonight with one galvanizing question on our minds: Is anything important enough to be boring?

Feature photos via Getty Images.

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