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Make debates boring again

| Monday, August 29, 2016

Throughout the election season, we’ve seen the various candidates square off in innumerable debates across America, and the one thread through all of it is showmanship. These events have drawn packed crowds, cheering and applauding wildly whenever the candidates stop speaking. In an effort to keep social media buzzing, the moderators have taken to pulling questions from Facebook. It’s a circus with clowns aplenty, and the networks are more than happy to keep it up.

While it’s loads of fun to watch, this style-over-substance debate structure has major flaws that limit the useful potential of the debate. For instance, grandstanding for cheap applause is a massive part of the reason why insurgent candidates have become so popular. Listening to a detailed, nuanced explanation of how immigration or trade policy is assembled doesn’t draw massive applause from the live studio audience. What will do that is cries of “we’re going to build a wall!” or “the one percent!” Small wonder Donald Trump has flourished in this environment — he’s an entertainer, not a politician.

So who is at fault for this devolution of political discourse? The short, unpleasant answer is “everybody.” Both parties’ leaders have mortgaged the quality of their primaries in exchange for firing up the base. The networks have ignored their responsibility to generate content that informs viewers instead of pandering. The bulk of the blame, however, lies with the people. The consumers begged for this style of coverage, and now they’re getting it. It’s the simple mechanics of capitalism at work — if someone wasn’t buying, they wouldn’t be selling.

The more aseptic the debates can get the better. Ideally, the candidates would face off in an empty room painted white, wearing beige suits and drinking skim milk. A radio address would be still better yet, as listeners would be undistracted by the physical appearance of the candidates. (Consider — was Franklin Roosevelt’s policy agenda any less powerful because it was delivered from a wheelchair?)

There’s still plenty of reason to have the debates, of course — a strong presidential candidate must be able to make a persuasive argument in real time in the face of opposition, as he or she will be expected to do during negotiations with other world powers. But behind those closed doors, there will be no crowd to cheer on a personal attack or off-topic rant. The moderators of the general election debates know this; accordingly, the audience of these inter-party contests is not permitted to cheer, boo, or make any noise whatsoever. Why, then, is this behavior not only tolerated but encouraged in primary debates? Aren’t we supposed to be vetting the best candidate to face the opposing party in the general election?

There’s also a time and a place for applause-line politics. That time and place is out on the campaign trail. In front of throngs of dedicated supporters, it’s perfectly fine for a candidate to rile up the crowd with emotional rhetoric. On the other hand, a debate should not be about generating these lines, but rather holding the candidates accountable for them.

There will doubtless be pushback to this strategy from the broadcasters, who have discovered that the GOP debates in particular are a license to print money. I certainly can’t unilaterally force them to make better debates, and I wouldn’t expect them to voluntarily make that decision in the face of good business sense. But if they’re so content-averse, there’s no point in their pretending to be news organizations rather than entertainment centers. If ratings really are all that matter, CNN, Fox and the like would be better served airing episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” as that routinely pulls in comparable viewership numbers and is about as relevant to the issues.

We deserve — and desperately need — a debate structured in rigid examination of the issues rather than razzle-dazzle. Since this cycle’s primaries are over, I can only hope that the networks recognize and correct their mistakes in the future. If not, I modestly suggest they go the opposite direction. Have the candidates introduced with their own theme music like professional wrestlers. Make them sit above dunk tanks and dunk the one with the lowest Twitter score at the end of the debate. Have the audience throw tomatoes at candidates they don’t like. After all, this isn’t anything important — this is just the presidency of the United States.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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