American politics are highly entertaining at the moment (unless you’re an American), and that’s probably not a good thing. Real politics, after all, shouldn’t follow the twists of a prime-time plot.
Even so, when the next Democratic presidential nominee debates the sitting U.S. president (or a replacement?) next September, it will mark the 60th anniversary of the very first televised presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon.
It’s fairly common knowledge that the newfangled format was not kind to Nixon, who looked old and sickly compared with his youthful, impossibly handsome counterpart. The substance of the debate mattered to some, but for the first time in American history, a vast number of voters would make lasting judgments based on looks and affect alone. As within a particle accelerator, popular culture and politics had collided like never before.
So have politics and culture evolved since the advent of the televised debate? Are we asking tougher questions and getting better answers? Are the majority of Americans getting real information they can use at the polls?
We’ve seen a shift in national (and even some local) politicking toward being far more about entertaining the masses than about doing what’s right for the American people — after all, we’ve elected a reality television star with zero military or public policy experience to lead the free world.
Heading into 2020, the American public is two generations removed from Nixon vs. Kennedy, but getting to the truth during debates (or election season in general) is a Herculean task even without a play clock. Never mind explaining your philosophy on health care in 60 seconds. And forget rebutting another candidate’s remarks — we have diapers to sell in 3… 2… 1…
Our politics are made for television. Candidates are given 60 seconds to explain extremely complicated positions; they shout over one another to be heard; they hurl insults and innuendo; they interrupt and are interrupted by each other, ambitious moderators and commercials. Often only the most outrageous sound bites make cable news or the Twitterverse, and they are often the least helpful to the voting public.
But are you not entertained?
The Washington Post, in an examination of the Nov. 20 Democratic debate, created a graphic showing the candidates who spoke the most. Elizabeth Warren led the pack, speaking for just under 13½ minutes on her positions on national security, the economy, health care, immigration, social issues, trade and why her policies are better than not only those of the current occupant of the White House, but the nine other candidates at the time. If Warren is named the nominee and maintains that speaking time, she will have talked to the American public for just over 2½ hours over 12 planned debates.
The graphic even allows you to see who attacked whom and how many times. Keeping score is easier that way.
But what if the format were different? What if candidates had discussions instead of debates? What if the best ideas from both parties were refined and implemented, without keeping score? What if networks forwent advertising revenue during the debates and just allowed the candidates to speak without interruption? What if the play clock were turned off and everyone had the time to present their plans for a better country?
What if, since we all play for the same team, we created an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition? Not everything has to be Dancing with the Stars, Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Monday Night Football. Not everything has to be outrageous or a contest.
There are plenty of opportunities to watch tabloid news, daytime talk shows and professional wrestling — all with yelling, name-calling and a menu catering to the lowest common denominator. The American political system isn’t far behind. You’ll want to look away.
Better set your DVR to “Record.”