I often think of the Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858. These were debates to win the seat of Senator from Illinois — not president of the United States. Nevertheless, the two men debated several times, the first in Ottawa, Illinois, a town of about 9,000. As the debates began 10,000 people showed up to watch and listen for three hours in the hot, summer sun. One participant spoke (without interruption) for an hour. The second participant spoke for an hour and a half, and the first spoke for a half hour in “rebuttal.” For the most part, the debates involved prepared notes, but there was considerable spontaneity and a few barbs — but no personal insults designed to make the other blanch. Always, the debates focused on major events of the day, chiefly abolition and the slavery question, the preservation of the Union, and the role of the government in these major events. Newspaper reporters were on hand to take notes in shorthand which were later reproduced at length in their papers then to be taken up by papers around the country to be widely read and discussed.
Today, in contrast, — and especially in 2016 — the debates ate relatively brief (90 minutes) on television which allows the voters to sit in air-conditioned comfort sipping their favorite drinks and turning the whole thing off if they become disenchanted or disgusted. Most recently the initial debate involved one unprepared participant sniffling and interrupting the other innumerable times, being as boorish and rude as possible and making sure that his comments were directed at the person of his opponent or bragging about his own accomplishments which, he repeatedly insisted, put him (and only him) in the position of savior of this country, making it “great again.” His opponent sought to address the questions and remain calm in the storm and make sure she didn’t lower herself to the level of her opponent. Her advisors, predicting further attacks in future debates not against her but against her philandering husband 20 years ago, have urged her to go on the attack, i.e., lower herself to the level of her opponent. One would hope she will not do this, but one also knows that this is what the people viewing want to see. After all, they have cut their teeth on “The National Enquirer” and “Reality TV” and one of these participants is convinced that the debates are exactly that with “uge” audiences.
The fact that this approach to what was once a very serious business is so very popular, as is the Reality TV star who is center stage regardless of what the other person is doing or saying, puts me in mind of the movie “Idiocracy.” In that movie, you will recall, the minions have indeed become mindless. Because of devolution of the human species resulting from too much TV, among other things, the IQ of the average American has lowered itself, roughly speaking, to that of a toadstool. TV is not the only culprit, of course, as genetics has been a large factor, since the bright people over the years decided to have no children, or only one or two, while the masses of humanity are reproducing like rabbits. This is what we might call a “leveling down in spades.”
The problem is that life is not reality TV and we have not become quite like the America envisioned by that movie. There are serious problems facing this country and there are qualified people who are able and willing to address them. But the media love a circus — it sells the peanuts after all — and they love the clown who brings in the audience to buy the peanuts. And, as we know, the media rule. Well, their sponsors rule, since they are the ones who eventually make the call.
So while we know that those in the media should be holding the candidates’ feet to the fire and asking them tough questions to see what they are made of, they will continue to allow the participants to have their way. A free-for-all sells better than at least one bright person struggling with tough questions. This is the age of “The Enquirer” and Reality TV after all. We get what we are wiling to pay for, even if we are getting ripped off.