I haven’t watched a full presidential debate. I haven’t been able to. I’ve watched a good portion of them, but as another friend on Facebook said: “I try to go ahead and get a headache before the debate that way I can save time.”
But, I’ve been thinking more seriously about the effect of the debates as a genre of television – specifically, they would fall into the “reality entertainment” genre. Think about it, the candidates are just as much TV stars as they politicians, and that’s about what it takes to run for office today. So, if someone isn’t good at entertaining, they are thought of as not being a good leader, or as having little ability to lead our country.
Now, of course I’m not saying that’s what everyone thinks, or even that those lines of reasoning have been explicitly stated, but I have been in many conversations where various candidates were discussed, and the only things being said had to do with their charisma. Foreign policy, economics plans, ethics, and past track record are seldom mentioned. Why is this?
I think that it has something to do with the nature of the “stardom” that presidential candidates walk into. As a nation, we are so used to reality television, that to watch a “TV show” about 4 or 6 guys who debate issues of the presidency, just feels like one more “Survivor” spinoff (when will Trump get voted off the Island?!?!?). And my fear is that instead of watching critically, we are watching to be entertained. And my fear is that, instead of being concerned with actually leading our country, some of the candidates are trying to figure out how to entertain us. And my fear is that, instead of a candidate winning an election based off of the positions they hold on actual presidential issues, they will win based on how well they perform in this new reality TV show.
In the most recent GOP debate, I watched Donald Trump straight up bully Ted Cruz, and then I watched Ted Cruz try to respond in kind (though he’s admittedly not as good at bullying as Trump). It was like watching two 6 years olds make fun of each other and then tattle-tale to their teacher! The problem was that the whole time, the audience was laughing, and some were even clapping! Why? Because it was funny, and they were entertained.
But while slapstick and bullying is funny when the characters are Larry, Curly, and Moe, it is nothing but despicable and insulting when they are your presidential nominees. These men want to represent our country, and yet they behave like little girls (not to be offensive to little girls!) in a catfight, instead of like grown men genuinely debating issues of national importance. And yet, their fighting and bickering and bullying is applauded and even praised by some. I have to believe that at least part of this is because we look at them, not as future presidents, but as characters in our new favorite slapstick comedy.
So, I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch the debates, and I’m not saying that there’s nothing that could be gained from them, but I will say that you can find their answers to most of the questions they are asked, without having to watch them. And these men should be evaluated based on their beliefs and track record, not based on how entertaining they are. Yes, obviously charisma matters, but being a good conversationalist, and being a charasmatic leader, are different than being a TV star.
So, if you are among the many who have struggled to separate reality from “reality TV”, then you might consider turning off the debate, and instead reading up on these candidates.
And even if you haven’t struggled, you still might consider not watching, simply because…in all reality, it’s bad television.