Do the American people benefit from an hour and a half of bickering?
Presidential and vice-presidential debates are in place to allow the American people to formally hear the political positions of the Democratic and Republican nominees. Contrary to the debate that took place on September 29th, 2020, it is not a place for presidential candidates to prove their dominance over, give their take on the intelligence of, or discuss the familial history of the other candidate. Nor is it a place to throw the whole organization of the event into chaos by debating the moderator.
Those who watched Tuesday’s presidential debate, and even those who read the headlines, know that this is exactly what happened throughout the night. Many brought up how it was embarrassing to Americans on an international scale, one reporter describing it as a “dumpster fire,” another a “trainwreck.” The debate and its reactions from media outlets raise the question for many of whom debates serve in our current political climate. With a country so divided, it is worth questioning whether Trump-Biden debates are necessary during this election season or if they push the two parties further away from each other.
Despite the importance of addressing the incivility of the evening, it is initially important to sift through the chaos and understand the content that was conveyed. Though it is distracting—perhaps even intentionally—to have two candidates speak over and consistently interrupt one another, it is still important to look past the interaction and examine what was said. By endorsing a group called the Proud Boys with the words “stand back and stand by,” Donald Trump openly called to action a group described by the Anti-Defamation League as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and anti-immigration,” as well as frequently associated with antisemitic and white supremacist groups.
As a nation recovering from its history of racism, sexism, and xenophobism against its citizens, the acknowledgment of this group in a positive way showed that the President of the United States is neither representative nor inclusive of all of those who they serve. The weight of this endorsement in it of itself brought the validity of the evening into question, for it gave a platform for presidential approval of hate groups on a national level.
Much more can be said about other dangerous assertions Trump made throughout the evening, such as the outright lies and attacks on deceased children that he brought up, but after four years of picking apart the carelessness of his claims, it is most productive to shift the attention back to the American people.
The presidential debate is specifically designed to inform the country on who they’re choosing to represent them for four years. The debates belong to the American people, for it is our right to know the positions of those we vote for in an open and straightforward setting. To make a mockery of this evening by intentionally obstructing the information shared by each candidate is to take away the American voter’s right to information about their election.
CBS reports that Donald Trump interrupted Joe Biden seventy-three times throughout the evening, and those who watched live were bombarded by these dizzying interruptions when the former vice president attempted to answer the moderator’s questions. Language such as “will you shut up, man?” and “will he shush for a minute?” were used by Biden on multiple occasions in reference to Trump, and moderator Chris Wallace appealed to Trump’s interruptions with “I’m the moderator of this debate and I’d like to ask my question.”
Due to Trump’s unprecedented interruptions, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), has announced that it will change the format of future debates to ensure a less chaotic exchange. This could include the cutting of microphones when candidates interrupt each other, something that the Trump campaign has criticized. Nonetheless, it has been announced that both parties will be informed of the new rules before the debate. Furthermore, the CPD has now proposed that the candidates debate online in light of Trump’s COVID diagnosis. This has also been rejected by the Trump campaign.
The incivility that was brought to the evening is comparable to the behavior of children, with preschool and kindergarten teachers offering advice to the next moderator to take on the two candidates. Running with this comparison of the candidates with school children, it is apparent that Trump did not do his homework, for it is reported by CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins that he took less than two hours to do the necessary preparations for the evening. Thus, the behavior exhibited in the context of the first presidential debate demonstrates that providing an informative evening for American voters was not on the agenda for the night.
This raises the question of whether presidential debates are serving their purpose to the American people and whether they are in need of restructuring or complete abandonment. With many of the questions going unanswered and many topics unaddressed, many felt that the evening reported little to no new information about the candidates’ standings on different topics. Further, the BBC has estimated that 90% of Americans already know who they’re voting for or have already voted. This can be attributed to the deep partisan climate that exists in our country, something a chaotic first debate fueled even further.
The next presidential debates are scheduled for October 15th and October 22nd. In light of the president’s coronavirus diagnosis and negative reception of the previous debate, many have questioned whether the next two will happen.
Unless candidates can ensure we won’t have to experience another ‘dumpster fire’ doubling as a plug for white supremacy, I think our country could do without it.
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Ryan Ford '23,