The current debates among both Democrats and the Republicans have elevated partisan dreams into an entertaining reality TV show, with a former reality TV star as its star. How far we have come from the seriousness of the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon!
There are many reasons why this has happened and why we are now so thoroughly stuck in the muck. One is that the populist anger of the working class is rising as jobs evaporate in the blazing sun of globalization. Another is the continual splintering of the donor class that makes it possible for the most ideologically extreme candidates to sustain campaigns.
A large portion of the blame, however, lies with the media, which have staged the debates as entertainment specials, designed to draw the largest audience possible in order to increase their ad revenues. In these, commentators are asking questions that just don’t matter.
Many questions and issues do matter and divide us bitterly: abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, immigration, among others. In the debates, we hear repeatedly what each candidate would do to resolve these issues if elected. But not one of them is telling the truth.
To be fair, they might all have “solutions” that they could – and perhaps even would – carry out if they could do whatever they wanted, but our government is designed to prevent presidents and parties from doing what they want without the support of a supermajority of the population. To ask candidates to explain what they would do in the abstract is a waste of time. .
There is only one question that journalists should ask, and they should ask it over and over and insist upon an answer, interrupting candidates when they dodge it and pointing out to them when they are wrong:
“What are the three (or more) most important bills for the country that you would champion during your time as president that would receive the support of enough members of both parties to be passed into law?”
Almost all polls show that people are vastly disenchanted with government and with those who govern. That’s because they don’t deliver on what they promise. And that’s because they can’t – because what they promised from the get-go could never be approved.
The debates are a unique opportunity to call politicians to task, to get them to stop selling us the snake oil of unfulfillable dreams and confront the political reality of the need for consensus. This, however, will not happen unless broadcast journalists worry more about what is good for the country rather than how best to maximize their ratings.
Ask the right questions, and we might get a few reasonable answers. Ask the right questions, and candidates might stop over-promising and disappointing the American people. Ask the right questions, and we might wake up from the dreams of what we might do and learn to live in the reality of what we can do. Ask the right questions, and help set American on a path to greater consensus rather than partisanship. Your ratings might go down, but your value to the country will certainly go up.
Michael Allen Gillespie is a professor of political science and philosophy at Duke University.
Tuesday: Republican debate with CNN from the Venetian in Las Vegas with moderators Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt
Saturday: Democratic debate with ABC from St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., with moderators Josh McElveen, David Muir and Martha Raddatz