If recent Republican presidential debates are any indicator, the state of our discourse has hit a new low.

Now let’s get something straight. Televised presidential debate has never been our country’s strong suit. For decades these “debates” have been shams of real political discourse — more a chance for candidates of all political stripes to pander to their bases than engage one another in thoughtful debate. Republicans as well as Democrats are guilty of evading questions, botching facts and concerning themselves more with landing a zinger than formulating a coherent argument. But given a 24-hour media machine that thrives on simplistic sound bites, can you blame candidates for their unapologetic grandstanding? For their participation in the circus that is the televised, commercialized political debate?

Yes, you can. But more on that later.

For starters, let’s brush up on history. The first televised presidential debate occurred in 1960 when a young, tan, poised John F. Kennedy outperformed a sickly, clammy, lifeless Richard Nixon in the first of a four-part debate series. For those 70 million American viewers who tuned in to watch the debate unfold on television, Nixon, infamously sweating under the glaring studio lights, was visibly uncomfortable. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the TV audience largely considered Kennedy the winner. The much smaller audience listening in on the radio, however, thought Nixon triumphant. Though the debate’s impact on the election results is disputed (Kennedy went on to win the presidency), it set a precedent for the future of televised political debate.

Appearance matters. That’s an enduring lesson of the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Advances in technology increasingly necessitate that our leaders be better publicists than public servants, better actors than thinkers. Public scrutiny has grown to the point where we care more about candidates’ body language than their words. Now don’t get me wrong — I want a confident commander in chief capable of projecting strength and composure. We need an articulate voice in the White House, but problems arise when we’re made to believe that the most attractive candidate is best suited for the job.

Which brings me to the contemporary media. Superficial debates of the modern kind don’t exist in a vacuum. They don’t spontaneously occur. Far from it. They’re carefully crafted productions where entertainment, ratings and artificial narratives take precedence over journalistic integrity. Looking at the gaudy sets of recent Republican debates, you’d think you were watching American Idol — except that even reality TV isn’t this flashy. (In June, Jon Stewart aptly deemed the set of a CNN-sponsored debate “America’s most patriotic game show.”) Pageantry detracts from true deliberation. Everything but the bare minimum — moderator, candidates, pens and paper — is a distraction. This isn’t debate. It’s theater.

Then there’s the audience.

Spectators at this month’s Republican debates seem to be making more headlines than the candidates themselves. During the Sept. 7 MSNBC/Politico debate, moderator Brian Williams directed a question toward Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “Your state,” he began, “has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you…” Before Williams could finish, the crowd erupted in prolonged applause. Perry, invigorated by his audience’s apparent fervor for capital punishment, went on to assert (in stony coldness) that he has “never struggled” with that fact. That’s particularly chilling when you consider that one of those executed was Cameron Willingham, who was put to death under Perry’s watch even though recent evidence affirmed his innocence. (Google it.) I wonder if Perry’s cheerleaders in the crowd knew that.

Strike one against an audience willing to praise unprecedented state-inflicted death.

Then, at the Sept. 12 CNN/Tea Party Express debate, Wolf Blitzer asked Rep. Ron Paul who should pay when an uninsured young man unexpectedly goes into a coma. After Paul danced around the question and threw out buzzwords like “freedom” and “responsibility” for the right-wingers to lap up, Blitzer (finally) got to the point: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” Paul had hardly spluttered out a weak “no…” when some in the crowd began shouting “Yeah!”

Strike two.

Finally, at the Fox News/Google debate held Thursday evening, Stephen Hill, a United States serviceman stationed in Iraq, fielded a question to Rick Santorum regarding the recent (and belated) repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I am a gay soldier and didn’t want to lose my job,” Hill said. Referring to DADT, he continued, “Do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?” As the camera cut back to Santorum, audible boos were heard from the audience. No candidates on stage attempted to silence the jeers. No candidates thanked Hill for his service.

Strike three.

Call me crazy, but aren’t the candidates supposed to answer the questions given them? Aren’t debates a time for us to hear what the candidates have to say? It’s sad and a little scary when you stop and consider what’s become of American political discourse. In today’s debates, even Kennedy wouldn’t stand a chance.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.

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