For a few nights every four years, I am fascinated by the presidential debates as the candidates and their rhetoric are evaluated by millions of Americans preparing to choose the nation’s next leader. This year, the presidential debates were a reality check for most of America. Headlines described the events as “a complete disaster,” a “disgusting night for democracy,” and a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” In the end, the debates left many voters dissatisfied and mostly unswayed in either direction.
For the sake of our democracy, there should be no more presidential debates. Never again should our electoral process reward unchecked misinformation and empty words. Given how important the process of determining our next president is — it determines the rights of millions of Americans — our assessment of the candidates’ leadership should be grounded in their values and policy vision, not their debate soundbites.
At the end of the day, the presidential debates are little more than political theatre with each candidate vying for the next day’s favorable news coverage and viral zingers. This year’s presidential debates made that evidently clear. Joe Biden and Donald Trump did little beyond demonstrate the ongoing partisan and personal clashing that has taken hold of our politics.
Although many media outlets fact-checked Biden’s and Trump’s statements throughout the debate, the candidates themselves actually had little accountability for what they said. During the presidential debates, many viewers are not incessantly tracking fact-checking sites and are not thoroughly versed on each party’s policy platform. As a result of this information gap, nothing stops Trump from claiming Biden’s “socialist” plan will abolish private health insurance when it does not, and Biden from claiming Trump single-handedly ruined a booming Obama-era economy when he did not. The only accountable figure left on the stage is the moderator, but neither moderator actively fact-checked the candidates.
While it is one thing for misinformation to spread from Internet trolls, the presidential debates gave a platform this year for our incumbent president and, to a lesser extent, his Democratic challenger to unashamedly proclaim falsehoods in front of tens of millions of Americans. Many Americans tune into electoral politics most actively during the presidential debates, and as a result are often not equipped to recognize lies or misleading comments from our political authorities. This can proliferate misinformation from those we are expected to trust in the most, further serving to erode public trust in government.
As political tensions have become more divisive, the debates’ meaningful policy discussions have shifted increasingly towards senseless squabbling between candidates. These trends predate Trump, although his focus on name-calling and grabbing substanceless headlines certainly compounds this. Like many Americans, my vote was not going to be decided based on Hunter Biden or his employment history. Yet throughout the debates, Trump repeatedly attacked Biden’s son as a justification for Biden’s supposed disqualification for president. In response, Biden’s frustration manifested as exasperation, further disrupting any hope for kitchen-table issues policy discussions. This reflected the general debate trend toward sensationalism and a growingly Twitter-centric political climate.
Instead of the current debate formats, pre-election coverage should center on individual town halls, giving both candidates the opportunity to expound on policy specifics without disillusioning voters through political vitriol. With questions at the town halls coming from potential voters rather than journalist moderators, aspiring presidents may be more respectful and contribute more to a civil discussion — all without accusations of moderator bias.
This year’s presidential debates ultimately make you wonder: when was the last time you came away from a presidential debate optimistic about the future? When was the last time you learned more about a candidate’s specific policy platform through a presidential debate? Today, presidential debates are now simply a forum for candidates to act all the more unpresidential. It is time that we prioritize a policy-driven, civil discussion based in fact — and that requires that there be no more presidential debates.