Who won the Presidential debates? Not American voters
During the first presidential debate, five million tweets flooded the internet, according to the University of Tennessee’s Social Media Command Center tracking. Those tweets covered a range of topics, from COVID to the Supreme Court. However, the fly on Vice President Pence’s hair garnered similar attention to the debate on Roe v Wade, and more attention than the issue of climate change and the Supreme Court appointments. The LA Times published a story headlined “Who has six legs and won the vice presidential debate? Study declares a Twitter victor,’’ and many major news sites published coverage of the fly along with the rest of the debate.
It’s not fair to say that the fly is the harbinger of the increased irreverence of the debates. However, there should not be the expectation that voters make concrete decisions on a segment that is nothing more than glorified entertainment. Politics are being covered as if they were a game of soccer, the net being the 270 votes to win the Electoral College. Ultimately though, this coverage of the game of politics is most detrimental to the voters, who get to know the candidates as debaters and not as effective legislators.
In his book “Out of Order,” Thomas Patterson proposes this thesis: that politics either follows the game schema or the governing schema. The game schema explains that candidates are actors whose every move is important, and that a reporter will look to that game. On the other hand, the governing schema has candidates rationalize the party and issues that are important to them to try to improve the voters’ quality of life.
The lack of substance at the past presidential debates further demonstrates how the presidential campaign is focused entirely on the game—and how it ignores the governing specifics, something that has concrete consequences for the voters; undecided voters will end up electing an official who they agree with superficially because they have no way of knowing the policies that will impact their lives. These debates encourage candidates to make broad statements and focus on one-liners that will gain attention online from people who can understand them without the context of the whole debate. The promises made in debates, though, are consistently empty; in reality, presidents don’t have the power to fully implement change themselves. They have to go through the legislative branch, and follow the intentionally complicated path for laws that the Constitution laid out to them.
The memes produced by events such as the presidential debates appear to never end. Commonly, all they serve to do is spread misinformation or a quote out of context. Now, the faster you can understand the meme, the faster it will gain popularity. And such easily digestible posts completely ignore the nuance that any conversation about policy may hold. While they can be used for humor and engagement, it’s worrying for those who use social media as their first source of information.
When I log into Twitter and see the internet focusing on the fly on Pence’s head but not Harris’s statement concerning Biden’s policy on hydraulic fracking, it makes me question the very premise of the debates. If someone was truly undecided, it’s hard to believe that two adults quibbling would help them decide. In an age of such polarized politics, it feels like we’re divided and voters already know what side they are on. Maybe the cancellation of the second debate was a chance for voters to do their research on the policies that will concretely impact their lives instead of scrolling through tweet after tweet of whatever viral moment that the internet would have produced.