You Look Better with the Lights Off: Should Debates Play Such a Prominent Role in Political Election
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 21:10
A little bit of make-up, pointed lighting choices, a carefully chosen tie. Welcome to the world of presidential debates, 21st-century edition, which has come to resemble more and more a Hollywood set than a forum for discourse and disagreement.
Before the 1960s, presidential elections were determined by a variety of factors, ranging from family name to prestige to notoriety. In the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the radio was the flavor of the day, and a good voice and comforting tone were indicative of presidential material. That all changed dramatically when John F. Kennedy, young, attractive and appealing, appeared opposite Richard Nixon, older, not very attractive and therefore less appealing, in a televised debate, highlighting the relevance of appearance and stage presence in the political arena.
In short, presidential candidates today are expected to be super-human exemplars of American idealism, and the debates – all three or more of them – are expected to be the ultimate indicator of these qualities.
There are many reasons why debates are important and positive – they offer the American people the opportunity to see their choices for president answer questions in a public forum, where they can, in theory, be held accountable for their words and stances and where they can be evaluated against one another.
However, as the modern political climate increasingly goes the way of a national circus, debating their relevance is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly essential. In a world where congressmen’s Twitter accounts are taken more seriously than accusations of war crimes, presidential debates have become reflective of a scandal-based world of political intrigue where blindsiding candidates with inquiries about their personal lives has become more appealing than asking straightforward questions about the economy and foreign policy.
With these points in mind and with the debates rapidly approaching, it may be time to ask ourselves, just how relevant are they? Are they more important than, say, what happens on the campaign trail, the platform listed on the candidate’s Web site, the ads they run on television or any other means potential presidents have of communicating with the country as a whole? For my own part, I actually think the answer is yes. The debates give us the chance to see the candidates on their feet, answering the questions as they come, proving themselves to us as world leaders.
What needs to change is the format and style of the debates; the emphasis on the personal lives of candidates, on political scandals, on hot-button social issues and on appearance and presentation all need to take a back seat to issues of international concern.
We are in an economic crisis and we have been a nation at war for too long. Students are unemployed with no job prospects and I’m more interested in what the candidates have to say about their plans for health care in this country than I am in who looks better in front of the camera or who has had fewer gaffes this election cycle.
American politics and news have become enough of a joke over the course of the last few decades, and the presidential debates are a sad tribute to that. They remain an important part of the election process and a good idea in theory; however, they need to change in order to restore dignity to the political process.
Perhaps then we can all learn to be more concerned about the future of our nation than about how a candidate met his wife or how much arugula said candidate purchases weekly. The media owes it to us, the candidates owe it to us and we owe it to ourselves.