Why Nobody Should Watch the Presidential Debates

Alongside observing patterns in the flight of birds, daily horoscopes and tarot cards, I find watching coverage of the presidential election initially amusing, occasionally intriguing, a hypnotic waste of time, and ultimately an unforgivable assault upon rational society.
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Alongside observing patterns in the flight of birds, daily horoscopes and tarot cards, I find watching coverage of the presidential election initially amusing, occasionally intriguing, a hypnotic waste of time, and ultimately an unforgivable assault upon rational society. Fortunately, preventing the theft of one's brain cells by this popular national pastime can be achieved through a simple program: not watching the race at all.

Deliberate, studied ignorance is a concept that many find profane in this age of information addiction, but it's merits appear once one does away with the fallacy that an individual more informed is always an individual more effective. A pilot must constantly be mindful of data about wind and clouds, but statistics about the wholesale price of Alaskan salmon have no bearing on her day. Information has no inherent value; its chief utility resides in its capacity to prompt reflection or guide action, uses that are themselves governed by contingent needs.

As far as prompting reflection, there is consensus among sensible people that valuable information about the biggest election of our representative democracy is hard to come by. The coverage of the presidential contest is shallow and pornographic, an arena with roaring crowds who delight in watching two men gore each other over the audacity of eating dogs or the ethics of strapping dogs atop cars or Cookie Gate or who built what or marathon times or Nicki Minaj. Commentators giddily break down the action down, promising to predict who will win based on their gut. This unholy mix of cage fighting and gossip is nothing new, though it is had been made livelier by the past decade's acceleration of the news cycle.

There are exceptions to this breed of discourse - sanctuaries of sober analysis and attention to matters of policy, typified by political bloggers such as Nate Silver and Ezra Klein. This segment of the media class attempts to stand above the fray by going beyond rhetoric and delving into voter data and the tangible differences between candidates' policy platforms.

While these efforts are in some ways laudable, so far it is difficult to see what fruits they will bear in challenging the basic dynamics of political life. Closely aligned with this policy wonk paradigm is the rise of "fact-checking," whose promoters hold the endearing hope that civility can be brought to popular discourse by ensuring the veracity of major claims made by politicians. The fact that fact-checking is considered distinct from standard political journalism (most gorgeously captured by the New York Times' sincere query to readers about whether the paper of record should strive to serve as a "truth vigilante") speaks volumes about the kinds of truths that tend to dominate the field. Its mercurial nature is more suited for sprightly facts about candidates and messaging than staid, static think tank facts. But fact-checking will not lose simply because its facts are less popular.

To the astonishment of some, fact-checking has been absorbed by the campaign apparatuses, incorporated into the truth wars, and its institutions have come under fire themselves. Fact-checkers are being pulled into the fray. This is the inevitable result of the reality that empirical inquiry never occurs in an apolitical vacuum, but is circumscribed by historical and nonempirical politico-ethical commitments. How does one isolate a fact? Some will also be appalled to learn that Republicans, Independents and Democrats hear very different economic news despite living in the same economy. One could point to Eli Pariser's powerful thesis about how the Internet algorithmically molds itself to conform to its users' worldviews, cocooning them in an informationally palatable filter bubble. But more fundamentally, sound psychology and philosophy show that nobody can -- nor should they try -- to weigh evidence without being informed by their values and experience. There is no such thing as an unentangled fact. I submit that those members of the media who see this false idol as the pinnacle of political discourse are not only misguided, but despite their intentions still part of a larger enterprise of distraction.


This claim is not so brash if one takes a practical perspective and acknowledges that swing voters -- the kind that not only identify as undecided but also have irregular voting patterns -- constitute less than ten percent of the electorate, and that a vast majority of them are low-information voters who do not follow national politics closely. Those two facts are not coincidence -- there are consistent, historically discernible differences between the two parties' values, priorities, constituents, and performance; resolute agnosticism about the parties' offerings is largely a function of a scarcity of knowledge. The very fact that you're reading about low-information voters makes it highly unlikely you fall in this category -- which brings us back to the original issue of the utility of information.

The most essential function of coverage of the presidential election should be to enhance citizens' ability to make a decision about whom they will support through their resources and their vote. But if nearly the entire electorate knows which candidate or party they will vote for based on their general pre-existing views, then they spend over a year reading incessantly about something that has no effect on their conduct. If most journalism is evaluation of past happenings that affect individuals' decisions about an uncertain future, election journalism is its perverse inversion -- speculation about a future event that is, for the individual educated voter, already decided upon. Coverage of the presidential election is the most consummate display of modern democracy as spectatorship that exists today.

The main beneficiaries of the election coverage are the political and media classes, who barrage the citizen into thinking civic responsibility is to be found in keeping up with an infinite stream of news. Except when mired in scandals of infidelity or forced into an unpopular vote, a politician always desires more attention from the media. A higher profile in the news increases clout, fundraising capacity, and voter recognition. Naturally, this thirst for cameras is amplified tenfold during an election. A media organization always wants to keep abreast of the affairs of big or upcoming politicians. Stories about big politicians increase clout, traffic and revenue. Naturally, the pressure to craft narrative and be part of the buzz is amplified tenfold during an election. These are not concerted machinations by politicians and newspapers (after all, the media has no mind); this is a convergence in interests, sometimes carnal, but also sometimes uncomfortable. More mundanely, political journalists need to be talking about something all the time, and the demonstrably worthless art of prognostication is just so easy and fun. But perhaps more than anything there is the hegemonic repudiation of the concept of representation, in which the political class is reified, and treated as the citizenry itself. We all get to learn so much about politicians and what they want. Everyone else is just buying tickets and clapping at the end of the show.


It dawned upon me while participating in a debate about Occupy and the 2012 elections that the advocate for the Democratic Party and I were not disagreeing about what a better society might look like as much as what was to be done. More precisely, whether anything should be done. He was sympathetic to concerns about the failure of Democrats to advance a serious progressive agenda since the Reagan era, but he thought party politics was the only real vehicle for affecting change. If people had pet issues they cared about, he argued that the best way forward was to support a conventional lobbying outfit that courts and supports the party. Sure things have been bad, but things will be better if we stick to our guns.

It's hard to believe that nothing extraordinary has to be done to reverse the ravaging of the left and its legacies -- or whatever is left of them. There is no serious, sustained anti-neoliberal impulse that exists within the Democratic party -- even regular media operators have deemed its current leader's policies as Reaganite. Mr. Obama is a lot of things, but he isn't a game-changer.

We can carry on and on with the analysis. We can keep discussing books and posting articles about how academics have decided that the U.S. embodies the compatibility of oligarchy and democracy. That national lawmakers pay more attention to the affluent then the middle class, and ignore low income voters altogether. That money predicts most congressional races, and that corporations are louder than people. We can also theorize about the perfect way to address systemic issues, and argue about reformist versus radical action, or the need for them to be combined. But all debate becomes pedantry when divorced from action.

Progressive America, where is our spine? Where are our teeth? Where is the search for ideologies and modes of action that will empower us and take us beyond the meager offerings of the politico-media complex? The one that involves rolling our sleeves up, and not just analysis? Regardless of one's feelings about Occupy, it sought to restore agency for the citizen. And regardless of its sustainability or the endurance of its ideals, it caused the cognitive rupture that it did because one of the best ways for low-resource actors, that is, average citizens, to do so is by breaking rules, collectively. It has served as an experiment in overcoming passivity and sectarianism at a time when all the left's utopia's have been exhausted, and organized labor is weak. I don't have the answers, but one place to start is questioning the way that gluttony has been transformed into virtue when it comes to gobbling up the minutiae of politicians' lives.

The presidential debates are starting soon. They are awesome spectacles, the greatest opportunities for journalists to challenge the parameters of popular debate, and the methodical abdication of that responsibility. They can be funny to watch, in a masochistic kind of way. But if you have to cry, go outside.

The piece originally appeared at THE NEOPROGRESSIVE.

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