Debates For Breakfast
I normally make an egg and cheese sandwich for breakfast in the mornings. The process is the same each time: whisk the eggs with salt and pepper and milk, and while they’re cooking, toast the bread and retrieve the cheese from the fridge. If there’s none left from yesterday, make coffee, too. It’s a boring yet efficient routine.
I tend to go about this little ritual with earbuds in, listening not to music, but rather to debates, typically concerning free thought, foreign policy, or religion — topics ever ripe for disagreement and conflict. I’ve listened to what amounts to days or perhaps even weeks of such extended exchanges.
These debates usually go something like this: each interlocutor makes an opening statement, usually constrained to ten or fifteen minutes, after which some multiple of paired, five-minute rebuttals is offered, followed by an extended period where the audience is afforded a chance to question the debaters. Occasionally, some time is allocated for open discussion tended to by a moderator.
There are reasons for why this format is so universal in the world of public intellectual discourse, even with mild alterations and modifications. The opening statements are long enough for opposing parties to voice their arguments with subtlety and detail, and the rebuttals are usually long enough for responses to be given with similar nuance. However, the most critical, foundational assumption of this model is that the participants will act with enough decorum and professionalism to necessitate little intervention on behalf of the moderator, save for sparking further conversation.
Even in debates trading in such volatile matters as religion, where at least one party usually takes incredible offense at some perceived blasphemy or believes the other deserves and/or is fated for torment and punishment, an understanding exists that if someone accidentally trespasses on allocated time, he or she will make an honest and apparent effort to locate a timely conclusion. Interruptions are minimal, and the most obnoxious outbursts of passion, anger, pettiness, and untimeliness usually derive from audience members emboldened by a microphone during a Q&A session.
All this is to say that when I sat down with my roommates to watch the first presidential “debate” of 2020, I was reminded of what a poor and ineffectual exercise the entire endeavor was. Two minutes is hardly enough time for an eloquent candidate (let alone Joe Biden or Donald Trump) to explain in any kind of practical depth their plans or opinions about an important topic such as climate change or police brutality. Such an abbreviation invites the kind of generalizations that result in bickering, cross-talk and confusion. The format hardly deserves the title of “debate”.
But any last shred of utility that could have been salvaged from such a crippled procedure was destroyed by the utter, childish conduct of the president of the United States, who chose to fill airtime with ceaseless eruptions and outbursts directed at his opponent and the moderator. Any American voter wishing to inform or affirm his or her franchise on the occasion was left entirely empty-handed, and the blame for that loss should be assigned without much deliberation.
However, there are solutions to this grievous problem. Yield the presidential debate moderator the power to mute the microphone of any candidate who grossly violates time constraints, does not have permission to speak, or constantly interrupts the other. Extend the opening and closing remarks to at least ten minutes per candidate, and the rebuttals to at least five minutes. Address only two or three topics during an hour and a half of debate, instead of ten to fifteen. Subsequent debates will supply time for extensive discussion of each critical issue.
Will presidential debates become more tedious and sterile under these changes? Probably, but such a format would force candidates to be deeply informed about their platforms. As an added benefit, the more deliberate format would also induce the electorate to readjust to the boring cough-syrup delivery of real politics, as opposed to the tempting sugar-pillish idea of celebrities holding high office and offering vaporware solutions to legitimate problems (I’ll get “political” for a moment to clarify that I refuse to take seriously anyone who asserts that Kanye West belongs in the White House).
I emphasize that the goal of this piece is not to offer commentary on policy, but rather to describe how the most public venue for political decision in American democracy is kneecapped by ill-advised debate structure, and how the coup de gras in the first debate of 2020 came in the form of a demagogic figure who lacks dignity, respect, class, restraint, and decency. So next time you’re making breakfast, try listening to a real debate as you do, and I suspect you’ll realize how our presidential debates could be like our first meals of the day: boring yet effective routines.