When you ask a debate coach about the presidential debates, I suppose the question is obvious – who won? We love winning in this country, not just doing it, but also the concept. It simplifies things. We love it in our sports, our reality shows, our videogames, our work. Troublingly, we have started to love it in our politics as well.
Think about the media’s treatment of campaign fundraising. It’s not uncommon to see news media report on what each candidate made in donations last month. Why? As a voter, should I pick the candidate that can get the most money donated to them or the one that represents my interests? Why should I mediate my politics through which candidate can more likely win Florida?
The combination of the 24-hour news cycle, widespread access to the Internet, social networks where political “news” is proliferated and increasingly sophisticated polling systems have left us inundated with information about the election. Every day there is a new poll of a key demographic. Reporters measure controversy and interest in statements made during presidential debates by the Tweet-per-minute metric.
It is a terrific thing that we have access to so much information. However, I do not think that we have quite figured-out what our role in this sea of data should be.
I worry that a large portion of the American voting population has become fans of political campaigns instead of interested participants. In other words, we care too much about predicting a winner and not enough about who we want to be president.
Presidential debates, then, are a big deal to us. If we learn to interpret presidential politics through the lens of the fan, the debates are the games. Only during the debates is that a true competition between the two platforms – a three-game series to determine a winner!
But for all of the assumptive expectations that we have about presidential debates, they seem to disappoint. Candidates use vagaries and heart-felt meaningless statements like, “I support freedom,” to side-step important policy questions. Talking heads droll on and on about who won and lost the debate, but randomly select criteria for determining who won.
Perhaps the gulf between the fantasy of presidential debates (as the zenith of political deliberation) and the reality (messy, Twitter-driven, randomly judged sound-byte Olympics with no discernible form of engagement) there is an important reminder for the American political (fan) base of each party: this is not a game. Despite the up-to-the-minute polling, Nate Silver and real-time Twitter monitors, this is not a presidential points contest where the electoral scoreboard dictates the winner. This is the future of our country.
We cannot afford to continue to approach our own engagement in politics as fans and our parties as fashion statements. We cannot because it’s not working – debates pivot on simplistic turns-of-phrase like, “The 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back,” and, “Binders full of women,” instead of concrete, political proposals that are far less sexy. That we want so desperately to simplify politics to the red and blue teams does not pave-over its complexity.
Until we learn to expect more from politicians and ourselves in the electoral process, we will not get any more than what the campaign and their debates have become – America’s oldest reality television show.