erosion of debate

This combination of pictures created on Sept. 29, 2020 shows President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020. Indian American freelance writer opines here that in the recent two debates – presidential and vice presidential – both the process and the objective of the debate were corrupted and the voters were not enlightened. (Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Today (Oct. 15, 2020) is when President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would have met for their second debate, which was called off due to the Presidential Debate Commission’s inability to get the two parties to agree over the modality of the debate. Trump opposed the suggestion to replace the in-person town hall style debate with a remote digitally executed one.

The cancellation leaves voters with the next debate scheduled in Nashville on Oct. 22 as the final opportunity to hear and assess what the two contenders have to offer to them. Before voters get all worked up about the coming debate, it is worth asking how well do debates serve our needs as voters.

For long, debates between presidential candidates have been valued for the opportunity they provide on a national scale for voters to hear the views of the candidates on various topics, and to enable the candidates to question each other’s stances. The debate is intended to foster better understanding by bringing out the differences between the two candidates on how they expect to approach the nation’s problems. Sadly, in the recent two debates – presidential and vice presidential – none of the above was accomplished. In fact, both the process and the objective of the debate were corrupted and the voters were not enlightened.

From the first debate, what most stood out was that our current and prospective leaders of the free world have no real debating skills and most certainly are lacking in civil debating behavior. A distressing feature, common to both debates, is that they failed to get to the meat of the issues raised, in total disregard of the questions posed whether by moderator or by the opponent. Not surprisingly, this leads one to wonder if the debating events have not been reduced to a total sham.

In addition to debaters entirely ducking the questions and not being forthcoming in their answers, the moderators were ill at ease to push the narrative. Moderators pose questions the themes of which are either pre-released or individually announced ahead of each segment. The structured format leads to plastic stiff performances, with moderators feebly positioned to elicit real responses or candor – let alone challenge the debaters.

A debate is when a subject is meant to be freely argued between two contestants, not a staged event with contestants queried and responding one at a time to questions posed. This cuts into the authenticity of the debate as became amply clear in the vice-presidential debate, which, even given that it was civil, turned out to be lackluster, with both debaters addressing their unseen audiences through tested responses from behind Plexiglas cages. In that false stratified situation, it is ridiculous to suggest that any of the contestants actually hit the ball out of park.

We Americans are so strung on appearances that substance in any case seems not to matter. In a tinsel world, where singers and stars recently had to appear topless to motivate viewers to vote, politics has degraded to porn, and tinsel is reduced now to ashes. The debate, furthermore, fits our never quenching thirst for slugfests wherein two persons can go at each other man to man, or now woman to man as in case of Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, and some self-appointed referees can then declare one of the two a winner. Americans love theatrics and the print and social media foster the dumbing down to which our TV viewing and social media obsessed audiences are addicted. Thus, debates not surprisingly are segmented into two-minute episodes, so viewers don’t lose their focus or move away, in total disregard of the time the debaters need to actually address the issues being debated. More importantly, it ensures that our ability to judge and decipher fact from fiction remains dulled.

That this tradition of debating is being continued certainly compels the question what exactly is intended to be accomplished by a nationally advertised and watched farce. To the discerning viewers, it serves no purpose except to pretend the people as a whole are invitees to a verbal sling match. In the age of widely popular fiercely fought ball games and boxing matches, and in the tradition of the bloody gladiator bouts of ancient Rome, this is just one more encounter with which to keep our populace engaged, albeit in this case, in the matter of politics.

The timing of the current debates, coming so close to the election date, makes the whole process meaningless. Other than the enhanced eyeball ratings and resulting profitability for the TV channels, this tinsel process surely accomplishes little by way of changing voter beliefs or behavior. A well-performing debater may and probably does receive a temporary boost which at best is ephemeral. When Biden and Trump descended to a street fight and lost their calm during the debate, they possibly did not lose or gain a consequential number of votes. Likewise, when Harris constantly sniggered or Pence repeatedly interrupted, their demeanor likely did not turn away their supporters. It only made their opponents more steadfast.

Barring any substantive innovation, this method of testing a presidential and vice-presidential candidate’s eligibility is hardly trustworthy or respectable. With debaters of both sides shirking away from candor, we must know that we are not putting their feet to the fire but merely dipping our own toes in the already tested waters. Coming at a stage in the electoral process when hearts and minds are made, or even locked and sealed, debates offer no more value than a poorly rated ‘Rotten Tomato’ movie or TV show. While it is true that the debate encounter does give us a few more days to laud or deride a candidate, it is unlikely that it bends the arc in any one’s favor.

(Sohoni is an Indian American published author and freelance writer.)

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