A History of Exclusion: Why presidential debates need an overhaul

In an era where social binaries and traditional categorizations are being passionately challenged, little attention has been paid to what has become one of the United States’ most powerful binaries, the dichotomy of the Republican and Democratic parties.  This is plainly seen in the vocabulary we use to describe out political workings.  In today’s political landscape, the highest level of internal cooperation we can achieve is often and best described as bipartisan.  The prevalence and power of the two diametrically opposed parties has led to a radicalization of the Nation’s voters and growing sensationalism in the presidential election process.  A telling microcosm of this evolution is the growth of the presidential debates to a high level of perceived importance by the voter, an extreme focus by the media, and a pattern of decreasing substance and inclusion.

Debates’ existence as part of the presidential election process is a fairly recent occurrence.  The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates are often pointed to as the earliest form of political debate as part of a campaign, but the first general U.S. presidential debate wouldn’t occur for another one hundred years and even then the event would not become commonplace until 1976.

The exclusivity and sensationalism of the presidential debates were already prevalent during the initial 1960 debates featuring Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  The two were provided with a suspension of a portion of the Federal Communications act in order to maintain the legality of the debate.  Section 315 of the Federal Communications act stipulated that any media time provided that any candidate must be allowed equal opportunities to broadcast except in the case of news or documentaries.  Under this rule over a dozen other candidates would have been afforded equal access to a debate.  Congress suspended the “equal time rule” to allow for the 1960 debate.  This gave precedent to suspend the rule for the following election cycles until 1983.  In 1983 the FCC decided to consider debates news and as a result no longer required the suspension of section 315.  This essentially allowed the media to exclude any participant from their debates.

After a few election cycles where one candidate or another refused to ask for an FCC waiver, the tradition of presidential debates started in earnest.  In 1976 the League of Women Voters recognized the importance of the presidential debate and agreed to sponsor several debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  The League continued to sponsor the presidential debates every election cycle through the 1984 election.  At that point the two major parties began to lobby to move control of the debates to the Commission of Presidential Debates (CPD), a coalition between the two major parties.  They invited the League of Women voters to sponsor the 1988 debates in conjunction with the CPD, but each party required non negotiable control over almost every aspect of the debate.  At this point the League of Women Voters rescinded their sponsorship saying “the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions … The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”  From that point onward, complete control over the presidential debates fell under control of the Nation’s two most powerful parties.

In the current election, the rigid exclusivity and media sensationalism is at an all time high.  Primary debates are being limited to control intra-party damage and support high profile candidates, debate formats have been molded to candidate and party ideals, and the media has embraced the ego based bouts as cash cows likened to the most anticipated sporting events.

In order to improve the parties’ chances in the general election, primary debates have become systematically controlled.  This evolution has also given advantages to front runners and limited the exposure of lesser know candidates.  Primary debates can be dangerous to the main parties as they an bring up facts that can be damaging to the candidate during the general election.  This year both the DNC and RNC reduced the number of sanctioned primary debates and for the first time instated penalties against candidates who participated in outside debates.  This ensured that the RNC and DNC had complete control over their candidates debate environments and allowed for the exclusion of lesser know candidates.  The smaller number of debates also favors the candidates who are well known or gain an early lead by insulating them from potential damages done during the debates.  This can be seen in Trump’s refusal to participate in several RNC debates.  Trump refused to participate in two RNC debates and succeeded in having one canceled entirely.  Clinton, the Democratic front runner has also declined the RNC final debate in May.  Clinton’s communications director stated that Clinton would be “preparing for a general election campaign that will ensure the White House remains in Democratic hands.”  Marking the importance of party concerns for the general election over continued interaction with other primary candidates and the risk of hurting Clinton’s general election chances.

The changes made to debate formats by the parties and individual candidates continue to highlight the departure of debates from being venues for open and sincere discussion of idea and policy.  Not only are the debate formats under the direct control of the two major parties, but they continue to change to better suit the campaign goals of the candidates.  After disallowing debate questions referencing things the candidates have said or done, the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus called previous debates “abusively fact based,” and went on to say “this is a presidential debate.  If people want facts, they can watch ‘Jeopardy’.”  Donald Trump was also successful in lobbying for format changes to support his name recognition and early lead.  After threatening to not participate in the coming debates, Trump was able to limit the length of the debates and allow each candidate to have a closing statement.  This would limit Trump’s exposure to damaging responses and, being the top polling candidate, allowed Trump to have the final word at the debates.

One of the most damaging changes the media has perpetrated on the debates has been the presentation of the debates as sporting events, pitting candidates against each other to score “points.”  the televised event is characterized by vivid cut scenes and introductions to rival any high profile sporting event.   Live commentators guide the viewer through the events just as they would for a game of football or baseball.  After the events these individuals discuss the candidates and determine “winners” and “losers”  instead of discussing the validity and substance of the candidates arguments and policies.  As a result, the debates have become ego fueled pissing contests instead of a platform to disseminate and question substantial policy recommendations.

None of this is meant to belittle the importance of the presidential debates.  It is a rare and essential opportunity for the voter to hear not only the views of all of their candidates, but also to have those views questioned  and defended in a substantial way.  Unfortunately, the debates have trended in a different direction.  The keys to a successful overhaul of the current debate culture are impartial governance, inclusion, and substance.  In a world with incredible access to mass communication venues other than television, there is a rare opportunity to escape from a restrictive two party system, have candidates from all parties engage in meaningful debates, and elect the best leaders regardless of party affiliations.

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