Americans love their augmented reality entertainment. The popularity of shows like “Jersey Shore,” “The Bachelorette” and “American Idol” stand as a testament to what TV programs the American public most enjoy. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, this proclivity toward the theatrical has crept into the world of governance, and it has become difficult to differentiate between the practices of modern politics and those of reality TV.
This has led to the current situation of presidential debates occurring before a live audience, and while it may appear to be an unimportant side-effect of the current entertainment age we all inhabit, it is much more pernicious than it seems.
It is clear the appearance-oriented nature of politics is especially prevalent today. However, it existed long before the days of Snookie, the Situation and the rest of the squad. In September 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon had the first-ever televised presidential debate, and Kennedy’s personable performance proved to be a major factor in his eventual defeat of Nixon. From that point on, understanding the effect of a candidate’s public media image has been a necessity for a successful presidential bid.
Politics and entertainment have steadily merged since that exaggerated flirtation in 1960, and in the 21st century, a presidential campaign is more comparable to the popularity contest of running for student government president — complete with ridiculous promises and social media influencers — than the high-minded process taught in AP Government classes. While an outright reversal of the effects mass media has had on presidential campaigns is unlikely, there are steps that can be taken to minimize some of its corrosive effects on modern politics.
For example, presidential debates — especially primary debates — shouldn’t be performed in front of a live audience.
On the surface, having live debates seems to be a move toward transparency and the opening of the democratic practice to more individuals. But in reality, having live audiences negatively distorts not only the messages of the candidates but the ability of the American public to decipher those messages while watching in their homes.
To the first point, the current live audience format of presidential debates has led the competing candidates to mainly tailor their messages into bite-sized zingers and phrases meant to elicit a response from the waiting crowd. This is especially prevalent in primary debates where there’s a multitude of candidates and talking time for each one is limited. In effect, the candidates have stripped much of the meat away from their points and instead, lean heavily on meaningless slogans.
What this means is that the American public watching is often not present to a debate between policies and ideas but rather an endless string of campaign slogans and witty remarks that impart little substance. Occasional moments of actual debate do shine through the fog, but those moments are fleeting and stand out for their rarity. Candidates are fighting over audience applause and soundbites, and the American voter is worse off for their vanity.
To the second point, because the candidates are dumbing down their policies and ideas to snack-sized bites, this means the general public doesn’t receive all that much substance to inform their vote. What substance the public does receive — and what very well may impact their voting choice — is the level of applause heard after each candidate parades their slogan to the live audience. Members of the crowd blindly and enthusiastically clap and cheer when their preferred candidate speaks, often without regard for the specifics they offer.
If there’s insufficient debate to differentiate candidates and little substance to persuade voters, then the amount of applause a given candidate receives becomes a large factor in what the public takes away from the debate. The problem is this process of a candidate gaining support through their slogans receiving the most cheer — and not for the substance of what they say — doesn’t help the public find the best candidate for the job of president.
A presidential debate is a job interview of the highest order broadcast live to all 300 million-plus Americans who ultimately decide who gets the gig. The stakes are virtually as high as they could be, and because of this, factors that dumb down the debate substance and disingenuously influence the voting public should be avoided as much as possible.
Presidential debates — especially primary debates — shouldn’t be held in front of live audiences as they hurt the democratic process of finding the best candidate to lead the country. While entertainment and politics have long been intertwined, it’d be advantageous to the American democracy for political debates to lose some of their theatrics and gain some much-needed substance.
Connor McNulty is a senior English and political science double major. Contact Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.