I used to be exceedingly hopeful about politics and policy matters. I was known by my friends in high school as the “fire-breathing conservative” because I’d come to school lunch ready to debate them about our contrasting politics. In my free time, I binge-read the news and tweeted about national political drama. I regularly put down schoolwork in favor of a fresh copy of “National Review,” my favorite conservative publication. I was driven to learn about conservatives and conservatism by this desire to be well informed and a belief that politics was inherently meaningful. I read about issues that felt like important subjects of national discourse that I, and many others, had a stake in as individuals part of the collective political project.
To some extent, this still feels true: (Meaningful) political discourse, at its core, is an exchange of substantive ideas and is undergirded with an intention from each of the participants of the exchange to change their interlocutors’ minds. Engaging with each others’ ideas is a worthwhile effort. Political conversations are attempts to understand the moral, ethical and philosophical roots and implications of politically-motivated actions and ideas. These are conversations that are ubiquitous on college campuses — in lectures, during debates, with your roommates and among your peers. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of these conversations as a writer for The Michigan Daily and The Michigan Review. That these conversations exist speaks to the stake young people have in political matters and the value of their voices, too. What’s especially disheartening in light of these meaningful conversations is the level of political discourse on the national front. I am specifically talking about presidential debates, the lone source of political discourse between the nation’s most prominent politicians. The system does a disservice to prospective voters, like young people, by pretending to serve as a platform for political discourse. It’s really just a meaningless charade to dupe the American public and that degrades politics in this country.
Debates were designed to facilitate discourse between candidates for public viewing so that people can judge for themselves the intellectual weight behind the ideas the candidates espouse. Usually, however, these debates are just an hour-long charade of the candidates incoherently yelling over one another, which moderators have a hard time stopping, like during February’s CBS News debate in South Carolina. This sort of bickering has turned politics into a farce because it pretends to speak to voter concerns but it actually is a battle for attention and headlines. Candidates are strangely rewarded for stump speeches with applause from the audience and they come prepared to incorporate buzzwords into their responses. There is rarely any substance to their answers, providing little to no value to everyday and undecided voters. To be fair, it’s difficult to expect a candidate to lay out their entire plan for climate change in one minute and fifteen seconds. That’s the problem with these debates, however: They’re the lone source of political discourse among candidates and viewers are expected to patiently watch the drivel that gets spewed across the stage like it’s worth listening to.
One noteworthy example of such a debate moment came from spiritual leader Marianne Williamson — amazingly, a Democratic candidate the others were forced to share the debate stage with — whose moment came out of her diatribe about the “dark psychic forces” simmering in this country. This is an objectively meaningless phrase. It’s just designed to rile up voters with fear and appeal to emotion; it’s a talking point beyond normal talking points and is intentionally provocative. It’s one thing to worry that individuals like Marianne Williamson can qualify for the debate stage and what that might say about the Democratic National Convention (DNC) or the electorate. It’s another thing, and probably more worrisome, that she can spin questions to recite her pre-scripted line about “dark psychic forces” and that it can be considered an acceptable and newsworthy statement on a presidential debate stage.
For some reason, these debates are important. During his 1992 race against George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton made a supposedly real connection with a voter during a town hall question, while the elder Bush checked the time on his wristwatch. This poorly timed mistake made Bush seem indifferent and uninterested in voter concerns in contrast to Clinton, which gave the latter candidate positive optics that boosted his campaign in the general election. Maybe politics are inherently vain and the surface element of election politics makes these moments the meat of presidential campaigns. For example, in the 2016 election, Chris Christie single-handedly destroyed Marco Rubio’s campaign by pointing out, rightly, that Rubio kept reciting the same memorized, “Obama is trying to fundamentally shift the nature of this country…” line to every question. Rubio’s only response — and campaign-derailing mistake — was to repeat that exact same line.
Perhaps politicians deserve, for partaking in this nonsensical charade, to have their campaigns hinge on small moments like these. Maybe voters are just too uninvested to care about substantive policy matters — and it’s moments like that that determine who they support. I think it’s sad, regardless, that we look to the content of presidential debates as anything more than a battle for moments. It’s an exercise in meaningless political banter, that, while helpful in learning more about a candidate, degrades the intellectual value in politicking. The solution to this problem is to encourage people to educate themselves and to read so that this charade is exposed as the farcical practice it is and so it doesn’t have nearly as much impact on future presidential races.
Neil Shah can be reached at email@example.com.