Presidential debates lend little substance to voters

Columnist analyzes consequences of contemporary media frenzy surrounding debates

By Roma Panganiban

We are lucky to live in an era of pervasive digital media. In an election year, any given screen can be turned to news of the ongoing political race. Plasma TVs, Internet-equipped e-readers and smartphones of varying sizes and descriptions are all valid vehicles to disseminate information previously only available via print media, and we all know that newspapers are so yesterday.

The presidential debates in particular rely on near-universal access to some sort of viewing device, by which the Republican and Democratic candidates for executive office make full use of high-definition technology to smile ingratiatingly, smirk condescendingly, and generally pander to the basest impulses of a visually-oriented society that would prefer their politics delivered with a dramatic, cinematic flourish.

Debate nights have evolved into lively social events: on the Allegheny campus, our three foremost political organizations have hosted watch parties for each of the four nights, complete with free pizza, that staple of any student event of substance. The atmosphere immediately before show time is anticipatory, yet jovial, with the same competitive air as Super Bowl Sunday, and about as much at stake—which is to say, little beyond the validation or disappointment of a loyal fan base clamoring for its partisan champion.

This political theatre colors public perception of the presidential candidates, but not in the way their debate prep teams likely intend. Rather than reassuring the American people of the humanity of their potential presidents, the televised spectacle delivers prepackaged candidates made up like mannequins in a store window, reciting party lines like a talking doll with a pull-string in its back.

This pandering fakery is an affront to the intelligence of the nation. In truly contemporary American fashion, constituents have begun to reclaim the discourse through the avenue they know best: the Internet.

With the growing acceptance of social media as nearly or equally as influential a source of cultural critique as mainstream news outlets, the debates are no longer limited to two men and a moderator: any computer-literate individual, regardless of other basic literacy skills, has the tools to disseminate their too-often ill-formed opinions via Twitter and Facebook.

Political commentary is now everyone’s game, interactive and democratic in the most classical Athenian sense of the word: thousands of men gathered in a public space, clamoring for their voices to be heard above the din in advance of an official vote being taken. This development is not a fortunate one.

Partaking, in a sense, in the debate dialogue by way of status updates and live blog updates can be an exhilarating experience. When, however, thoughts released into the semi-public sphere of a personal Facebook network and set of Twitter followers show up on national television, superimposed beneath the images of two candidates going at it in real time, private opinion takes on weight in the public domain that is undeserved and irresponsible to promote. I wouldn’t accept medical advice from a layperson; neither would I take political guidance from some random person with Wi-Fi. Sad to say, a “real” voice from the people—one of the “folks” —is not always necessarily a voice worth glorifying.

The real debates are taking place elsewhere, in conference rooms and strategy meetings; at least, I hope so. They may even be taking place between third-party candidates, those near-mythical creatures whose campaigns are mere punchlines to the two-party system firmly entrenched at the heart of modern American democracy. Without widespread news coverage, however, their efforts at a more incisive political discourse are as futile as fact-checking a candidate who still insists that the Commander in Chief of the United States went on a global “apology tour,” or that economic stimulus created zero jobs. Honest question: what’s the point?

Roman emperors, those precursors of republican leadership, ruled by the principle of panem et circenses: offering their people “bread and circuses” in lieu of government for the common good. If Paul Ryan has his way, there won’t be any guarantee of bread for the needy, but so long as election season means debate season, there will certainly be circuses.