The Debate We Deserve

Until we have a better political system and a more attentive electorate, we are not in a position to dismiss the type of debate that we had last night. We got the debate we deserve.
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The complaints started as soon as last night's Democratic debate ended. According to the pundits, this was the worst debate of all. The moderators asked questions that primarily focused on scandal and personal attacks. In today's Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote that the debate was "another step downward for network news...." Shales was not alone. MSNBC host Keith Olbermann spent his post-debate broadcast lamenting the quality (or lack thereof) discussion that had just taken place.

Yet these complaints are not exactly fair. They assume the existence of a higher level of politics than we have had for a long time. As frustrating as it might be, the truth is that the quality of our political debate has greatly diminished over the course of the twentieth century. Since the late 1900s, and especially since the 1950s, we have lived in an era where political campaigns revolve around character and personality with an emphasis on scandal and gaffes.

The rise of television since the 1950s and the transformation of the print media has reduced the amount of time that voters have to hear and read what candidates had to say. The time of the "soundbite" shrunk even further with cable television and the rise of celebrity television anchors -- declining from 40 seconds in the late 1960s to under ten seconds by the mid-1980s. The primary process, as it took shape since the reforms of the 1970s, further accelerated this shift by making character and media appearance even more important. Candidates adjusted effectively and have learned to run their campaigns on this basis.

Voters have been guilty as well. The problem is not just the media or the political process. Public interest in politics has steadily declined since the nineteenth century when turnout in presidential elections averaged almost 80 percent and 60 to 80 percent for nonpresidential year elections. Election day was a major public event akin to entertainment. People vote less, their attachment to political institutions has declined, and their distrust in politicians has grown. Americans are more interested in American Idol than American presidents. They're not asking for much substance.

While the nation would undoubtedly benefit from a political process that emphasizes substance and issues, we aren't there now. Thus, there is value during the primaries to debates that center on potential scandals. Why not have debates put candidates through this kind of scrutiny -- whether with Barack Obama's ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. or Hillary Clinton's misstatements about Bosnia -- since those are the issues that Republicans will discuss in the fall? We are in an age of Swift Boat attacks. So if Democrats want to win the White House, shouldn't they get to see how candidates handle these kinds of attacks before the general election begins ?

Of course, these kinds of debates provide Republicans with fodder and substance-based campaigns would be much better for the polity. But until we have a better political system and a more attentive electorate, we are not in a position to dismiss the type of debate that we had last night. We got the debate we deserve.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Harvard University Press). He is currently writing a history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books.

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