According to ratings data from Nielsen, the Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday attracted more than 11 million viewers.
According to the Washington Post, that’s less than half the viewership that tuned in for the first primary debate in 2016, when Donald Trump was among those on the debate stage.
With the current state of politics, I’m a little surprised that many people tuned in to watch, even if the biggest story surrounding it was that Trump wasn’t there.
At a time when words like “spin,” “misinformation,” and “fake news” are part of the everyday lexicon — especially where politics is considered — the debates offer candidates a chance to speak to the American people in plain language and offer substance about where they stand.
But they don’t.
Now, the debates feel like performance theater, and it often leaves one wondering, what’s the point of debates anymore?
The debates used to be appointment television. It’s estimated that between 60 million and 70 million Americans watched the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Three debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 are still among the highest-rated in history.
It’s a whole lot different now.
The candidates, regardless of which party you support, give evasive or non-committal answers, answering a question the way they want to answer, even if it means not remotely answering the original question.
Instead of focusing on issues, the debates seem more centered around who “wins” and candidates seem more focused on making sure they get in that well-rehearsed zinger someone wrote for them rather than telling people what their plans are for the economy or on foreign policy.
With so many candidates participating — eight in Wednesday’s debate — there’s bound to be some jockeying for position and airtime, but I’m not interested in seeing a potential candidate try their hand at stand-up comedy or trying out a nickname on an opponent they’re desperately hoping will stick.
In that way, it feels like politicians, the people who are vying for the chance to lead our country, are nothing more than bad actors trying their best to secure a breakout role. Most of the focus going into a debate isn’t necessarily on performance, but on the potential for the sparks to fly amid the verbal jousting.
But I suppose for some folks that’s exactly why debates are so intriguing. They may already have their minds made up on who they’d vote for, but the chance to watch a figurative car wreck happening live is too enticing to turn away.
I understand politics these days is a nasty business. Or maybe it’s always been. I get that any chance a candidate has to make themselves look good, they’re going to take it.
But, if the debates are still to be an important part of the political process, then we ought to start treating them as such, with a debate format that is more closely followed, candidates provide clear answers to important questions, and the focus is on the issues.
James Andersen can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.