In 2008, during that year’s interminable election season, bars in my neighborhood posted signs they were showing the Democratic primary debates, the presidential debates, the vice-presidential debates; we all seemed to be comfortable and enthusiastic about the notion of election debates as spectator sport. I made plans to watch the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in company; I got together with a friend, we drank wine and bourbon, and laughed uproariously at that bizarre pair; I keenly watched too, the presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. Eight years of a Bush administration were coming to a close, and I allowed myself to believe that, yes, change was in the air, that deliverance from that grinning fool and all he represented was possible. On election night, I hosted a results party. Friends came over, we checked laptops and television screens, whooped and hollered, groaned and moaned, drank champagne, nibbled nervously, and finally, when the Obama-election was announced, I opened my window and yelled out into the darkness: ‘Fuck you Sarah Palin!’
Nothing like that will happen this year. Last night, as the first presidential debate kicked off, I finished dinner, sliced up an apple or two and sat down to watch the penultimate episode of Friday Night Lights. Later, I checked the news–the Yankees had clinched the American League East–and my Twitter timeline and noticed much chatter about the lameness of it all: the lying Etch-a-Sketch Mitt Romney, the dull Barack Obama, the ineffective Jim Lehrer. I posted a couple of facetious Tweets, read the opening chapters of Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution, and went to bed. I doubt the basic pattern of dinner, Netflix watching and bedtime reading will change on the nights of any of the debates to follow. In the case of vice-presidential debates, to quote an old friend, I would sooner slit my wrists with a butter knife than voluntarily watch Paul Ryan on television for even a second.
Part of the adverse reaction to the debates, as my remarks above indicate, is based on some weariness. But mostly, it seems unclear to me they offer voters anything useful in a political dimension. As my friend and ex-student Tara Mulqueen succinctly noted:
[I]ts very premise and construction of politics effects a massive closure on anything that might be deemed properly political.
To wit, it seems implausible that the format and staging of the modern debate offers anything remotely close to what might be termed a political dispute; the moment this political ‘encounter’ is placed on television, we lose any semblance of political struggle and descend into posturing built up out of the bare-faced presentation of talking points, the avoidance of analysis and argument, the evasion of difficulty. It’s almost as if some public spectacle were required to serve as the summum bonum expression of the vapidity of the election season i.e., the skirting and skimming of the most difficult problems that face the nation, and the debate does so, no pun intended, spectacularly. And puzzlingly enough, it isn’t even clear whom the spectacle is intended for: if undecided voters are undecided because they aren’t paying attention, then what is the point of watching?
The debates remain a spectator sport; fuel for Twitter-and-Facebook-chatter and drinking games; I paid up in 2008, but now I’m done.