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The Unbearable Emptiness of the Presidential Debates

The Democratic Party should be hosting thematic debates with viable presidential candidates on poverty, housing, foreign policy, immigrant rights, the climate crisis, and more. Instead, they are collaborating with the mainstream media to host empty entertainment spectacles.

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Marianne Williamson, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former tech executive Andrew Yang, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

It’s still months before voters will be able to choose among the twenty-four candidates running for the Democratic Party’s nomination to be president of the United States. And yet the endless coverage has already begun. So many candidates are running on the Democratic Party ticket that they had to be crammed into two debates held on back-to-back days — ten one night and ten the following night.

The debates captured much that is wrong with US electoral politics. The format is the product of collaboration between the multibillion-dollar cable news industry and the Democratic National Committee (DNC); DNC chair Tom Perez said it worked for months with its “media partners” to create it.

Who can describe these debates as anything other than grist for the breathless twenty-four-hour cable news mill? How is a format that calls for sixty-second general responses or thirty-second direct responses — with no candidate afforded an opportunity for an opening statement — a serious effort to allow candidates to meaningfully engage the issues, or for viewers to gain any substantive insight into the nature of our problems and the weight of their solutions? The simple answer is that they are not.

The two debates generated the typical hot takes and breathless analysis. They also displayed the many problems with mainstream electoral politics. The timing and format make little sense for an exercise billed as an opportunity to learn about the candidates. Pundits, meanwhile, spend hours dissecting popular candidates, declaring “winners” and “losers” while deriving banal and impressionistic conclusions at all times.

This is pure political spectacle created by television executives with an assist from the DNC. In the world of the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, never-ending commentary is legitimized by each gaffe, misstep, and misstatement, further perpetuating the “need” for constant analysis. This, in turn, pressures candidates to treat these summer debates as high theater — canned statements, painfully rehearsed Spanish, or the memorized comeback — all tightly staged with an emphasis on style and certainly not substance.

So while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have offered the most substantive and detailed analyses of the problems in American society, with specific remedies, their substance clashes with the cable news–generated attention span. Indeed, as the candidates rush to measure themselves against the standards championed by Bernie Sanders — from health care to education — the Vermont senator is criticized for being boring and repetitive.

If part of the Democratic Party’s strategy is to meaningfully engage with the 100 million eligible voters who did not participate in the 2016 presidential election, drive-by debates marred by opacity and clichés are hardly the way to do it. It is an exhausting yet never-ending process. Debates that eschew depth and complexity for telegenic charm and sound bites have the effect of making the status quo seem charming or even politically potent.

Take these last two debates. It is widely believed that former HUD secretary Julián Castro and Senator Kamala Harris had the greatest impact. Castro seems to have momentarily resuscitated his near-death candidacy with pointed attacks on Beto O’Rourke’s underwhelming positions on immigration (despite O’Rourke’s weird response in Spanish at the beginning of the debate).

But what does Castro’s effective debate performance actually tell us about his record at HUD or even as mayor of San Antonio? What does it tell us about his politics and objectives as president?

The following night, Senator Kamala Harris made headlines when she devastated former vice president Joe Biden on the subject of his overhyped record on civil rights and his terrible statements defending bigots and segregationists. We should expect a lawyer trained in the art of persuasion to excel in this format. But what does Harris’s debate performance actually tell us about her record in politics and how it lines up with the positions she’s now championing?

Indeed, after posing as a “people’s champion” in the debate, the following night she was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser for her campaign organized by a former executive of Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo is not just any bank — it’s a bank that has repeatedly targeted poor and working-class black communities with predatory financial instruments intended to profit from segregation and racism. At this fundraiser, you could get your picture taken with the senator for a mere $2,800.

Debates are not meaningless. They can be useful tools to allow candidates to explain their politics, platforms, and insights into problems and solutions. But neither of the existing political parties are interested in meaningful debates that require more than memorizing crib notes and one-liners. Even as the DNC has promoted this kind of “quick-fire” approach to the debates, it has actively shut down a focused debate among Democratic candidates on the climate crisis — going so far to forbid party candidates from participating in any climate debates.

The DNC should be hosting thematic debates with the most viable candidates on housing, debt, poverty, foreign policy, racism and inequality, immigrant rights, gender justice, criminal justice, and, of course, the climate crisis. Instead, they collaborate with the mainstream media to pursue a format more notable for its entertainment value than for any meaningful political content. The public deserves a real debate about the politics and policies that are at stake in the looming presidential contest.