First Presidential Debate Favored Spectacle Over Substance

We’ve all learned a lot about spatial relations this year — I think, by now, most of us can measure six feet by sight. During Tuesday night’s trainwreck of a debate, though, I was thinking about spatial relations in a new way. There was just so much to see — Joe Biden continuing to turn to speak directly to YOU, the American people, his gaze trained on the camera; Donald Trump squared off against Biden, or pouting down into his podium. And of course, moderator Chris Wallace, seated many feet away from the candidates standing and fighting far above him. 

Most people who have done any sort of teaching or mentoring work know the importance of spatial orientation in communication — literally getting on someone’s level lets you match their energy, rejecting the idea that you have more power in the conversation than they do. We know intuitively that space and physicality matter in the marketplace of ideas — on Tuesday, Twitter blew up with suggestions for improving the debate in real time. People suggested that mics should be muted when it’s not someone’s turn to speak, and that the platforms should sink a few inches each time a candidate interrupts the other. Personally, I joked to friends that the moderator should be on a platform above the candidates from the start — then, they might actually take him seriously.

Whether Chris Wallace as moderator deserved to be taken seriously is a whole other question; framing the humanity of Black citizens and the realities of climate change as points to be argued over, rather than truths mandating governmental action, is egregious in and of itself. But, even putting that aside, the man was flustered and struggled to maintain any control over the situation — and how could he, when he was out of sight and mind for candidates on a stage above everyone else? “I am the moderator of this debate,” Wallace called into the void of Trump’s vitriol. 

Seeing my feed fill with the incredulity, pain, and terror of a nation forced to watch an incumbent and former vice president call each other “man” in a display as out-of-control as a middle school classroom, I kept thinking about how the debate format favors not only power but spectacle. What does it say that the election process for our country’s highest office has become a collective drinking game? I don’t think any of us wants to be an extra in this perverse reality TV show. The future should not be dystopian entertainment. 

Playing the drinking games myself, I kept wishing that Bernie Sanders had been our nominee — not even for his progressive policies, though I miss them a lot, but because maybe he’d be able to yell over Trump and this hour and a half would suck a little less. What does it say about the values of debate that one of the most appealing qualities in a candidate is their capacity to dominate and control — to literally drown out the competition? These are values of imperialism — of whiteness and patriarchy and oppression. 

The U.S. has only ever had male presidents, and with the sole exception of Barack Obama, all of them have been white. Even with an initially-diverse pool of Democratic candidates, the person on stage is a white man. Debate numbers have shown again and again that male candidates run their mouths for minutes longer than women on the debate stage — and what for, when they say things like, “Will you shut up, man?” and, “They’re going to dominate you, Joe, you know that?” 

Tuesday’s debate showed that when a bullying, white President gets his way, hours are spent talking about a bunch of garbage rather than the real change needed for America, and the real policies that will accomplish it. For the struggling, damaged, persecuted populace watching, the whole set-up is downright insulting. This is a contest for our country’s highest office, and the outcome of this race will have a tremendous impact on millions of lives. Reducing that to an argument over basic facts and insidious personal digs is unforgivable. 

Watching systemic power play out in an interpersonal exchange was as enraging in this instance as it is in workplaces, classrooms, and public spaces across America. I don’t think anyone wants the guy who steamrolls everyone in class to retain ultimate decision-making power over all of us. So yes, vote for Joe Biden — but recognize too that the debating format doesn’t create the meaningful policy discourse we need. It rewards desirability politics and the exertion of power.

I know that Trump’s pure meanness and disregard for principles of political respect and etiquette are the unique qualities that throw these structural flaws into stark relief; but now that we’ve seen how quickly and completely meaningful political discourse can fall to pieces, we need to reevaluate the format that let it happen so easily. How will an election procedure that incentivizes cutting one another off, yelling over each other, and lying to get the upperhand ever be conducive to electing officials who aren’t white, cisgender, able-bodied, wealthy men? Read: It won’t.