Can we all agree that modern debates are horrible? While in the past they might have been events that focused on policies and ideas, the contemporary debate has been something of a political Super Bowl, with over-the-top graphics, pre- and post-event analyses, and even the singing of the national anthem before the action begins.
The very idea of a televised debate is inherently cringeworthy. Do we really want to see politicians who hope to lead our nation sweat under a wall of lights in uncomfortable suits while trying to make their points on complex policy issues in two minutes or less? What value do we get out of watching the candidates commit verbal errors and awkward phrasings because they’ve been forced to condense policy positions into sound bites while battling stage fright?
Instead of allowing for a freewheeling and organic debate on the issues, what we are forced to watch is a hyped-up spelling bee contest for adults. Perhaps it would be best if we ditched the television and returned the debates to radio where the focus was less on appearance and more on substance. Or, since we live in the twenty-first century, perhaps a series of podcasts (moderated by Ira Glass, of course) in which each episode focuses on a single issue and the candidates give their perspective and positions.
All this being said, the first Democratic debate, while still uncomfortable and overdramatic, was eminently more watchable than the Republican debate. Sure, there were still awkward moments (former Gov. Lincoln Chafee unironically called himself a “block of granite” on two occasions while former Sen. Jim Webb had a temper tantrum on multiple occasions over his lack of speaking time) but by and large the debate was a vast improvement over the two GOP debates that preceded it.
As Gov. Martin O’Malley noted, “On this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of anyone because of their religious belief. What you heard was an honest debate of what will move us forward, to lead to a clean electric grid by 2050, and employ more of our people, rebuild our cities and towns, educate our children at higher and better levels, and include more people in the economic and social life in our country.” This was largely true, as the candidates didn’t attack each other and tended to focus more on policy, although the time that they had to do so was very limited.
Humanists definitely had a lot to like about the debate, from the remarks in support of the LGBTQ community, to overtures against institutional racism, and calls to listen to scientists when it comes to climate change and our impact on the planet. Notably missing from the debate were appeals to faith or religious ideology (the only mentions of God were by Hillary Clinton, referencing people’s “God-given” potential), attempts to discredit science or scientists, attacks on women’s healthcare options, and appeals to return to “the good ol’ days” which were only ever good for those who were white, Christian, and financially stable.
Humanists should also be excited by the talk about making college more affordable, something that is desperately needed if our country is to remain an educated society. This proposal also has the added benefit of potentially creating more people who leave their religion, as a recent study by Pew shows that the more educated a person becomes, the more likely they will become nonreligious.
Still, the message I took away from the debate was that something is terribly wrong with our campaign system, if not our political system as a whole. Whether it’s the exaggerated and insubstantial nature of the debate, or the attempts by the media and campaigns to spin the debate in favor of their chosen candidate and raise some cash, everything just felt undignified and needlessly phony. It’s not that the candidates were unable to differentiate themselves from their Republican colleagues, as they were able to do that quite clearly. The problem is that these debates and their aftermath have legitimized in the minds of the American public that modern politics is about bright lights, cheesy music, forced smiles, and an occasional policy point or two.