It’s Time to Tune Out
Presidential debates are obsolete. So why do we feel obligated to pay attention?
Just shy of twenty-five years ago, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror VI aired. The Halloween special featured several short horror parodies, including one called “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores”. In this segment, a freak lightning storm causes giant advertising mascots to come to life. They start wreaking havoc on Springfield, terrorising the residents until Lisa comes up with a plan to starve the mascots of the attention that powers them. As residents stop paying attention to the mascots, they fall, one by one, powerless and inert.
Now, I could go for the low-hanging fruit and say that nothing the Simpsons churns out in a couple weeks for the 31st(!) Treehouse of Horror special could compare to what went down in the first presidential debate of 2020. But that goes without saying. Instead, I want to talk about how the 1995 special’s advice to ‘just don’t look’ is probably our best bet at handling the rest of the presidential debates, both this year and in the future.
Tuesday’s debate did nothing to further the cause of democracy. Nobody learned anything new, or got to know the candidates better. In fact, it was marked by chaos, crosstalk, and churlish insults. It was like if WorldStarHipHop ran a nursing home.
Luckily, the Commission on Presidential Debates plans to implement further structure to maintain order, such as the ability to cut off microphones if candidates overstep boundaries. But it’s too little, too late. In the 1990s we began to understand the irrelevance of the debates when cable news and the nascent internet was offering 24/7 access to candidates and a broadening platform for those candidates to explain their policies and plans for the presidency.
As this graph based on Nielsen ratings data shows, that trend is reversing, but I don’t think it’s because they’re suddenly offering something new. I think we’re tuning in out of anxiety, out of a desire to feel more on top of issues that are spiralling out of control all around us. The first spike was in the middle of what would become yet another interminable war w̵i̵t̵h̵ ̵E̵u̵r̵a̵s̵i̵a̵ in the Middle East, then another upward trend as the 2008 recession, accelerating climate crises, and the bewildering rise of failed businessman and successful reality TV star Donald Trump to the stage of national (and arguably global) politics.
Back when information was harder to come by, the debates made sense. If you didn’t live near a main rail line, your chances of ever laying eyes on a presidential candidate were almost nil. Campaign signs more prolific than kudzu hadn’t come into being yet. You weren’t getting disparaging leaflets through your mailbox and there was nowhere to go and read up on a political party’s platform. So having the candidates come together to broadcast a debate over important issues was an excellent way to help voters become informed before making their very significant decision. But this isn’t the case anymore.
So why do we still watch?
Given the DNC’s proclivity for trotting out the same old candidates over and over due to a misunderstanding of how political career trajectories work, we don’t need to get to know their candidates. We already know them (and our parents already knew them and in some cases our grandparents already knew them) and for the most part, their policies and opinions don’t change. Both Democrats and Republicans are prone to political dynasties (the RNC has more Bushes than a botanical garden, and there’s been think pieces galore written about Michelle Obama, Chelsea Clinton, and Ivanka Trump running for president) and candidates so old and senior within their parties that there has to be some Weekend At Bernie’s shenanigans going on.
In an age where navel gazing over political issues is a viable career and every presidential wannabe has a Twitter account and millions of followers, we don’t need to get to know a candidate via an event like the debates. In the words of literally everyone who’s ever met Prime Minister Harriet Jones, ‘Yes, we know who you are.’
The debates also used to be for voters who were on the fence about who to vote for. But this, too, is a bygone era. Between hyperpartisanship, tribalism, religious fervor and outright existential fear, if you’re an American voter you likely are either a) voting for Trump or b) trying to decide if you’ll write in Bernie or hold your nose and vote for Biden.
And yet, despite everything we’d normally get from a traditional presidential debate being redundant, more people than ever are tuning in. Why? If we’re already decided, if we’re not learning anything new, what are we getting from these debates?
The answer becomes a little more apparent when you start looking at who is watching. Here’s a (simplified) breakdown of viewership of the 29 September debate by news network:
Fox News - 17.8 million
ABC - 12.6 million
NBC - 9.7 million
CNN - 8.3 million
So what’s the explanation? Entertainment. With Jerry Springer (or Jeremy Kyle, if you’re in the UK) off the air, we’re missing that certain violent something. Nobody comes out swinging on Maury. But Trump? Trump always comes out swinging. And since the DNC has again decided to drastically miss the point and assume that matching punch for punch instead of aiming more strategically is the way to go, Biden tried to play Trump’s game.
We wanted to watch politicians insult and denigrate each other. Trump supporters wanted to watch their guy ‘win’ and the lefties that grew up thinking a roast from Colbert or Stewart could actually do anything beyond make us feel better wanted to see someone tell Trump to shut up.
As long as these are our motivations for watching, and as long as networks are utterly beholden to ratings (which in turn are tied to provoking visceral reactions in viewers), these debates will only continue to devolve, regardless of how many mics the moderators kill.
‘Just don’t look’
As always, the Simpsons had the answer, long before there was a question. What can we do about this? Just don’t look. You’re not going to get anything out of the debates except a guilty (or not so guilty) pleasure from watching people be horrible to each other. If that’s what you’re after, go play Untitled Goose Game. Or if it’s the violence you want, watch Kill La Kill. Whatever you do, don’t scratch those itches on the pillars that are supposed to hold up society.
Content that doesn’t get watched gets cancelled. If these undignified tantrums stop getting networks the views they need, they’ll look for something else to broadcast.