I'm teaching a very important course this semester, and the timing couldn't be better. It's called Political Communication, and since we are currently in the midst of choosing the Democratic nominee for president, there's a lot for us to analyze. During the semester, we examine what each political party is doing to get their candidates elected. We study how campaigning is done, how politicians get their messages out to the public, which strategies are effective, and which ones aren't. We also look at some past campaigns, to compare them to what goes on today. (Did you know that George Washington didn't campaign at all the first time he was elected president? Imagine all the money he saved!)
On Tuesday night, I watched portions of the Democratic candidates debate. There were twelve people on the stage (way too many candidates for a real debate), and three moderators questioning them. For about three hours, each of the candidates tried very hard to distinguish themselves-- to say something clever or something memorable, in addition to getting their talking points out there. I thought some of the candidates stood out more than others did; but the entire event felt really superficial to me. Nobody was able to explore the issues in depth. They were all performing for the cameras, hoping the viewers would find them both likeable and informative.
And there were so many issues that didn't get discussed at all; but even if they had, I'm not sure all twelve candidates would have had enough time to tell us much. I wondered what Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas would have thought about candidates only getting about 75 seconds to answer a question: in their famous debate, each man was expected to speak for at least sixty minutes, with the other person being given ninety minutes to respond. Okay fine, there was no television or radio or internet in 1858, so the public didn't expect short sound-bites, and they were fine about long answers. In fact, they expected a thorough articulation of each candidate's policies. I don't see how 12 candidates can thoroughly articulate much of anything; and even when the candidates are winnowed down to just a few, I wonder if that quotable (or tweet-able) moment, the one that can go viral on social media, will take precedence over giving in-depth answers.
Perhaps I'm imagining it, but our politics seems to be lacking in substance. In fact, it seems more like a Reality TV show, or perhaps Professional Wrestling. The president says something outrageous. The media report it. The commentators on each side react to it. The various candidates who want to replace him express their disapproval of what he said. And on we go, till the next outrageous assertion, and the cycle repeats itself. Meanwhile, the partisans on each side retreat to their respective corners, watching or listening to their favorite media outlets, as their favorite politicians repeat the standard insults against folks on the other side. (It's possible to spend one's entire life safe in a bubble, only exposed to views that agree with yours, or reinforce what you already believe.)
More than any time I can remember, our Political Communication is dominated by insults, name-calling, and exaggerated claims, all intended to stir up outrage. No wonder nothing is getting done. This president prefers to go on TV or social media and mock the folks on the other side, rather than seeking common ground with them. And his opponents are torn between coming back with insults of their own or ignoring what he said (and possibly appearing weak). And here we are, stuck in a made-for-TV election process. I wonder what the viewers thought of the debate. I wonder which candidate impressed them. But above all, I wonder if there is any one candidate who can help create a country that is less angry and less partisan. Let me know what you think.