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What’s Broken About the Presidential Debates Is What’s Broken with America

Tonight millions of unfortunate Americans (myself included) watched what could only be called a series of two-minute stump speeches riddled with interruptions.

It certainly wasn’t a debate.

Here’s how it went [spoiler alert]: Trump made an assertion and then Biden said, “not true!” and then Biden made an assertion, and Trump said, “not true!” (That said, the two were not equivalent. By one count, Trump had 359 interruptions to Biden’s 73.)

It’s reminiscent of the timeless Monty Python argument clinic sketch, where a man pays for an argument and is immediately frustrated when the whole thing descends into contradiction instead of an argument.

A: Oh look, this isn’t an argument!
B: Yes it is!
A: No it isn’t!
B: It’s just contradiction!
A: No it isn’t!
B: It IS!
A: It is NOT!
B: You just contradicted me!
A: No I didn’t!
B: You DID!

Tonight’s debate, as is the case with every presidential debate my entire life, was a case study in contradiction instead of the practice of laying out propositions with evidence (also known as a debate).

The problem wasn’t just the candidates on stage, terrible though they may be. The problem was the format itself. The debate opened with Chris Wallace laying down the ground rules (which were swiftly disregarded): Half a dozen topics, two minutes each.

Contrast that with the format of the extensive Lincoln / Douglas debates, as recounted in Neil Postman’s essential book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman writes, “On October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., the he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.”

Seven hours of debate with long uninterrupted stretches.

What’s most frustrating is that we have the technology to hold legitimate debates today: Simply put an iPhone on a tripod, bring the candidates together (with one microphone), and give them 30 minutes each to make their case about a topic uninterrupted before allowing the other person to speak. Stream a series of seven debates on PBS or CSPAN, and—boom—hold the election and let us all move on with our lives.

The reason this doesn’t happen is that the TV networks wouldn’t profit from it. And there’s the rub. Insanely wealthy owners use the publicity from the “debates” to build their ratings. They bring out pundits—perfectly categorized by historian Rutger Bregman as “millionaires being paid by billionaires”—to act (“act” being the operative word) as moderators. All the while, the owners get richer.

It’s short-term thinking that hurts the long-term health of the nation, all for the purpose of padding the pockets of those who own the TV stations. The former CEO of CBS Larry Moonves couldn’t have said it better when he declared that Donald Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Of course, Trump is not the cause of the problem. He’s the symptom. He’s had a decade’s worth of experience playing a businessman on TV, and in today’s America it turns out—devastatingly—there’s no better way to prep for the presidency than perfecting the craft of amusement.

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Writing about Mormonism, politics, and philosophy on Medium.com

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