Presidential Debates Should be Deemed Cruel and Unusual

In the comments here James Hanley called the debates “pure political theater.” To the degree that last night’s romp was light on substance and heavy on posturing it certainly was politically theatrical. And yet to call it pure political theater would seem a disservice to those who actually do political theater—including satire, parody, and experimental forms of performance art.

It is easy to get caught up in one’s dislike for, say, Romney, and have to choke back a few tears of triumphant happiness when he gets smacked with a baseless but entertaining zinger. It’s also extremely difficult to summon those jubilant tears back when, upon reflection, the complete jingoistic idiocy of both candidates is forced to be made so abundantly explicit that the sophomoric nature of our democracy is left in plain view for all to see, like a beached whale grumbling lethargically in the morning sun while tourists gather round to take pictures and document this curiously engrossing tragedy.

No one last night laid out an actual plan for anything. This is most likely because they don’t think that the people watching are smart enough to deal with particulars, and the uncomfortable reality which such details must necessarily inhabit.

Which is why the rest of us take to Twitter, or our preferred live-blogs, comment sections, and forums, to seek solace in the good-natured snark of ironic tweets, cat pics, and memetic tumblrs as they are created and populated in real time.

By the second half of the debate I, without having intended to, had stopped listening to the debate and was instead consuming it through my feed. It was much funnier, much more enjoyable, and much less terrifying than the demoralizing farce taking place on stage.

In addition, I tried to keep up with the Economist’s commentary, provided by a handful of people here. It always proves a stark reminder of just how little sense the candidates are actually making. I usually don’t care too much about this.

After all, neither of them are speaking to or for me. Even though my mind isn’t made up (between Obama and a third/fourth party candidate), the opportunity cost of trying to impress me versus convincing a handful of other voters is such that the two political campaigns have correctly ruled out trying to reach out to this portion of the electorate in any meaningful way. We are either partisans, junkies, or extremely rigorous analytics, and will do a fine job of convincing ourselves, and rationalizing our own votes, without their help.

But in this election, what the candidates say actually feels extremely important. Obama apologists, whether they are of the “he’s the best we’ve got” crowd or the “he’s actually, totally, not evil” variety, argue that we must look not at what the President has done or said, but at what we think he will do, despite what he says in some instances, and because of what he’s said in others.

Those, like myself, who are predisposed to dislike Romney (politically at least—though he’s doing a good job of appearing unlikable as a person as well), are none the less curious what he will do, based on what he has said, and what he has not said, and what he has said that he has not said but has still said.

Obama, per his performance last night, is a deeply passionate friend of Israel, and will treat an attack on them like an attack on the United States. He also won’t let Iran have a nuclear weapon. That’s what he said, in no uncertain terms. Now he’s either lying or not. Based on what he said he is either going to go to war with Iran or not. Those who support Obama, many of them at least, will probably argue that he’s just saying what he has to say to get elected. Indeed, he has said such things in the past. He has, more eloquently, and with an apparently heavier heart, reversed his position on a range of topics not too much smaller than the number on which Romney remains inconstant.

So in the end, I don’t know who is going to do what they say, and what parts of what they say are just for show, and what parts they really mean—mean so much in fact, that they won’t reverse their position on them in the future.

After three debates I am less convinced than ever that Obama means what he says, and Romney does not. I am less convinced than ever that the likelihood that Romney is really a moderate is decisively less than the likelihood that Obama’s naïve imperialism is just for show, or something he proceeds with involuntarily.

The debates are useless, and the debaters themselves so poor at on the spot reasoning and analysis, that it is looking more and more like we should do away with them entirely. No more debates. Just interviews, since that’s more or less what they have become—competitive interviews where you try to give better questions than your opponent, all while explaining why his/her answers suck. They are not about truth, or correct opinions, or fundamental values at all.

So if anyone in the political media still has some self-respect, an unlikely thing I know, they should try to move us toward a simple Q & A.  Each candidate gets a series of yes or no questions. We don’t even need to televise it. We could simply make it into a digital questionnaire and embed it in Reddit or something. At the very least a format like this might make it easier to parse our what a candidate actually believes, or at the very, very least, provide everyone with a plain document that can be waived around furiously in the future as each answer is revealed to have been a lie.

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18 thoughts on “Presidential Debates Should be Deemed Cruel and Unusual

  1. “…the complete jingoistic idiocy of both candidates is forced to be made so abundantly explicit that the sophomoric nature of our democracy is left in plain view for all to see, like a beached whale grumbling lethargically in the morning sun while tourists gather round to take pictures and document this curiously engrossing tragedy.”

    You know the German term ‘shaden fruede’?. We need a term like that for rants like this. “Bunk” doesn’t do it justice.

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  2. Not having watched the debate, I have one main question.

    I’m a Libertarian and I’m pretty dad-gummed far out of the mainstream to the point where I say stuff like “I can’t tell the difference between these two when it comes to Foreign Policy”. My take is that we should go isolationist. (“Don’t you mean non-interventionist?” “Shut up.”) Now, I also know that this view is not held by the vast majority of the country. They like the idea of intervention “When Intervention Is Called For”, they’ll say, (circularly, in my view).

    As such, I know that I don’t have my thumb on the pulse of America.

    With that said, it seems to me that both of these guys are within acceptable tolerances for the public when it comes to When Intervention Is Called For and the drone army is only making When Intervention Is Called For cheaper when it comes to the lives of people we give a crap about (our own (those who aren’t on a list, anyway)).

    Is that accurate? Now, I’m not asking you to tell me how Romney is a war-monger who will drag us into conflict in Syria and Libya while Obama is the sober statesman who will, like Wilson, keep us out of war. I’m more interested in your take on the take of Hoi Polloi on these two guys with regards to Fo Po.

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    • From my take on the debates, yes. America Fish Yeah sells, having some other poor bastard die for their country sells, having our poor bastards die for our country does *not* sell, and both candidates explicitly stated policies that covered each of these.

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  3. You know the old saw about lies, politicians, and speaking. Nuff said.

    I really don’t understand the dismay/histrionics here. This is new to you? This has been going on for a long time. The key to politics is to be everything to everyone, then reneg on any promises once elected.

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  4. it is looking more and more like we should do away with them entirely. No more debates. Just interviews … they should try to move us toward a simple Q & A.

    This may be ironic, but Ethan’s proposal made me think of Rick Warren’s back-to-back interviews of Obama and McCain in 2008.

    In any case the debates aren’t going anywhere. There’s a saying from xkcd that a tradition is anything that happened twice during a Baby Boomer’s childhood/youth. The “tradition” of having three debates between the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee has solidified. Does anyone remember the flak that George W. Bush took when his campaign tried to decrease the number of debates in 2000?

    Further, in an age of so much media noise, the debates are discrete signals that people can latch onto–especially people who do not otherwise follow politics closely or enjoy following the play-by-play of campaigns. Sure, the debates are artificial kabuki, and not too deep on substance, but the debates are utilitarian microcosms of the campaigns for people who otherwise are not paying much attention but who still plan to vote and want to feel “informed.”

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