Housed in the austere Whig Hall, with Woodrow Wilson staring gravely upon them, a couple hundred students sit on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next Joe Biden slipup or incendiary roast from Julián Castro. I, too, sit with my friends, pizza and drink in hand. If Joe Biden confuses himself again, the room cringes; when Julián Castro calls Joe out on his confusion, the crowd roars in laughter; when Andrew Yang so much as opens his mouth, he is met with ridicule and snickering.
These are the 2019 Democratic Debates.
From the description above, they are scarcely discernible from a Bachelorette watch party or a comedy show. Arguably, few partake in watching these debates to fulfill their democratic duty as a citizen; rather, the debates serve as entertainment. And this is far from a positive development in our election process.
Since these debates are some of the only times many Americans are ever exposed to the candidates and their platforms, it is crucial that they emerge informed and better equipped to choose a candidate who aligns with their own individual goals and vision for America. Unfortunately, the debates have left most audiences with only the following: fleeting stump speeches, catchy (and ridiculous) slogans, and ill-defined policy proposals.
First, none of these debates have allowed candidates sufficient time to explain their comprehensive plans. Since the emergence of the debate tradition during election season, debates have presented candidates with less and less time to impart substantive ideas to their audience.
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, candidates opened with an hour-long speech and their opponent was granted 90 minutes to reply. In the 1960 debate between JFK and Nixon, each candidate received eight minutes for their opening speeches.
The September primary debate presented candidates with a mere 60 seconds to announce their platforms and to respond to questions from moderators. Notably, these are primary debates, not Presidential ones, but even the 2016 Presidential debate allowed candidates some two minutes to answer questions. The July episodes this time around were even worse — with a crowded stage full of many unfamiliar faces, participants received a measly 60 seconds for answering questions and only 30 for rebuttals. How can anyone possibly be expected to sell themselves to the country within 60 seconds? Even Joe Biden, who spoke the most in September’s debate with a total of 17.4 minutes of airtime, could not have given the audience a clear view of his policy initiatives in so short a time.
Instead, candidates are forced to vie for dominance and a lasting impression in the debate, competing to say the most memorable (or sometimes the most ridiculous) sound-bites that might stick in the heads of audiences come primary election days.
On this note, we come to Andrew Yang, one of the candidates who has relied on these sound-bites to propel himself forward in the polls in the miniscule amount of time he has had to speak in the debates. The defining slogan of Yang — perhaps one of the only things for which any viewer will remember him — is that he can beat Donald Trump because “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” And, in the September edition, he used the quip “Now, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” Yang’s playing into stereotypes is problematic on its own, but it is also emblematic of what candidates have to do to get the attention of the American people.
In reality, Andrew Yang is much more than this slogan; he has several well-defined and comprehensive policy proposals, left untouched and unopened by the Democratic debates. For example, NPR Politics Podcast does “On the Trail” segments with 2020 Presidential candidates, exploring their lives and their particular policies. During his feature, Yang was composed and down-to-earth, explaining clear and well-defined initiatives regarding climate change and other issues. When asked about the Asian-stereotyping slogan he uses, Yang noted, “I used it at the next event and it got raucous applause and laughter and then said, "OK. Not being a total idiot, I should probably say that again."” He himself admitted that it was a stereotype, but it did successfully gain him attention.
This portrayal of our government leaders is problematic in yet another sense — it taints the way American people perceive their government. Rather than a serious and pressing discussion of issues, the flashy stage and witty comebacks are more like an SNL skit. And, since this may be the only opportunity many citizens have to see the candidate selection, it acts as a representation of what our government means.
At a point where only 17 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing, we cannot afford to further undermine what respect remains by trivializing and glamorizing what ought to be an intellectual and deeply reflective discussion of public ideals and substantive goals for our nation’s future.
If the televised debates do boost voter turnout or at least prompt individuals to actually delve into political issues for themselves, it is perhaps better to have the debates than to have nothing at all. But in the future, I would suggest that we take a more guarded approach when judging candidates by their debate performance.
Emma Treadway is a sophomore from Amelia, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.