It’s time to throw out the debate: Analyzing the role of bias in the Democratic presidential debates

Essence Perry

The next Democratic presidential debate is upon us. We enter the experience with charged emotions and hopes to gain more information about the candidates. Nevertheless, we often leave the spectacle with feelings of ambivalence and disappointment about the way things played out. With each debate, we have been conditioned to expect toss-ups and biased questions, nasty attacks on fellow candidates, inevitable gaffes that become meme-bait and breakout moments that arbitrarily determine the fate of campaigns. Despite these shortcomings, something keeps drawing us back to the debates, the soundbites the next morning and the Instagram posts for the next week. However, do the benefits actually outweigh the pitfalls of the debates? What are we actually gaining from viewing these spectacles? What positions of power are maintained and reinforced by this political instrument?

The presidential debate has strayed far from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1866. What initially began as an organic process between senatorial campaigns, in which candidates rotated between 30, 60, and 90 minute speaking intervals, has now become an arbitrary measure of political leadership and aptitude. The debates, like today, were immediately sensationalized by the media but the longer speaking times allowed candidates to propose fully formed ideas and policies. Even if a candidate “lost” the debate, they gained significant notoriety and became known for their positions on controversial topics. This is how Lincoln gained prestige within the Republican party, and how other lesser known candidates with bold ideas could gain broader recognition.

Further, what merit does the format of a debate provide us? Debates with multiple contestants, like the Democratic presidential debates, cause debaters to jockey for marginal amounts of position and recognition. This causes debates to be a contest of performance, for which candidates aren’t judged based on their ideas or policy, but rather on their ability to speak in easily digestible soundbites and confidently spew their rhetoric. In terms of content, this form invites, even encourages, candidates to soften and simplify their positions. They only speak about issues that make direct emotional appeals to voters, and avoid nuance and broader connections between ideas, all of which we should demand from our presidential hopefuls.

Even more underhanded is the way in which candidates must perform on stage and formulate their arguments. We reward candidates who are hostile towards opponents, assertive on the stage, and use inflammatory rhetoric to prove their points. However, being assertive is only an attribute white male candidates can possess and exhibit. Female candidates with the same attributes are labeled “bitchy,” “overly ambitious,” “masculine,” or “cold.” These shifting standards are worse for candidates of color, whose assertiveness is deemed “angry,” “aggressive” or “out of control.” The current debate style deeply reinforces the game of public perception that candidates from underrepresented backgrounds are forced to navigate. Presidential debates, in their current form, help reaffirm many class, race and gender biases about candidates rather than affirming their ideas, political courage and leadership.

Not only does the idea of debate inadvertently harm candidates that already face greater barriers to entering politics, there are real concerns about who wields control and power over the debate. Currently, political parties and the major media conglomerates, Comcast (NBC, MSNBC), Disney (ABC) and Time Warner (CNN) have hosted all of the debates. This allows a company to have complete control over the placement of candidates, the arrangement of the event, the people who moderate, how candidates get to rebuttal, the types of questions asked and the overall scope and frame of the debate. Not only does this allow media to silence the people’s concerns and questions about their prospective president, many of the important questions are absent. For example, topics like criminal justice have received less than 30 minutes of airtime, despite several of the candidates having precarious and problematic backgrounds on the topic. Instead, moderators ask questions that pit the candidates against one another, create false dichotomies between progressive and moderate candidates and implicitly reinforce stereotypes about candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. It is clear that the media isn’t interested in talking about the most pressing issues that plague the nation and our lives. Rather, they are interested in the issues that incite manufactured disagreement among candidates (read: healthcare), fluff questions that make great evening news clips (the “Ellen” question) and topics that cater to issues important to populations of people already served by our political system (no questions on sexual harassment, rural America, or mass incarceration).

We have never explicitly outlined the goals of the democratic presidential debate and we have barely begun to question the format that currently exists and what it reinforces about politics, more generally. As the political arena is becoming more diverse, we also need to think about the power structures that have historically inhibited their entry. Rethinking the presidential debate is just one way we can begin doing this.

Essence Perry ’22 is from Fitchburg, Mass.