At the start of my junior year of high school, I joined a cult by the name of the public forum debate team. I’d been rejected from an internship program in Washington D.C., and I was looking for a new project. Someone (my best friend? My teacher) thought I would be well suited to the team. I ended up with a talented partner who had been to Nationals the previous year and a coach that I both respected and idolized. So, in the way life happens, at first there was nothing and suddenly it was everything.
Almost every Saturday from late September through March was spent travelling to some area high school for a tournament. I’m not setting out to revise history, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I liked winning! I didn’t like what it meant to get there. I would sleep horribly the night before, I couldn’t eat anything all day, and I would vacillate between pre- and post-round anxiety attacks. Not to mention that I sweated a lot...more than I can articulate. The preparation for these tournaments was grueling (although intellectually rewarding). We would spend hours (and hours and hours) researching and synthesizing information, talking and arguing our way through lines of logic, preparing speeches, refutes, and contingencies. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan came out sometime during my senior year and I remember empathizing a bit too strongly with Natalie Portman’s journey for perfection depicted in that movie. It was a tumultuous, never-ending, emotionally exhausting, intellectually rigorous experience that I’m grateful for, but looking back, it felt like a cult. To be as knowledgeable as we wanted to be on the topics we were debating meant isolating yourself from everything in order to learn, understand, and become the topic in front of you. And to think we only dealt with one topic at a time!
Given the recent presidential and vice presidential debates, I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience. Despite my attempt at not watching the debates, I somehow ended up tuning in or watching after the fact. Surprise! They weren’t substantive at all. In fact, every minute that I spent watching was a waste of my time. This won’t surprise anyone who watched the debates. Hell, it won’t surprise anyone that watched a ten second clip of the debate. These debates serve little more than to stimulate the political theater surrounding the election.
A presidential or vice presidential debate should be an opportunity for the American electorate to hear directly from candidates as to their stance on the issues. Their stance should be questioned, interrogated, and believe it or not, debated. The goal in a debate, at least in all the debates I participated in, should be to convince the audience that you are right. The very existence of an opinion is of no consequence. Your job as a speaker is to articulate your ideas in such a way that it leaves no question as to who is right. That said, when two evenly matched teams meet, it’s possible for a judge to walk away feeling like it was a draw. The presidential debates should operate the same. But they don’t.
Instead, these debates play out as fanatical, histrionic, political theatrics have had any real substance hollowed out. They have replaced their important content with an unintelligible, deepening void. There are a lot of people and institutions to blame for this change, but blame does little more than to alienate. Instead, we as an electorate must demand that these debates reorient their primary goal. A presidential debate is not something that should be marketed as a grudge match. They should be an exchange of ideas wherein candidates are held to a gold standard, asked to articulate their policy ideas, and demonstrate unparalleled professionalism and intellectual prowess.
I believe that presidential debates have the potential to be a resource to the electorate. I don’t buy the idea that all truth has left politics. But the current circus that makes a campaign into a series of theatrical moments, rather than substantive discussions is hurting our ability to govern.