Was the First GOP Debate Really a Debate?

For well over a month now, the first GOP debate has dominated the American twenty-four-hour news cycle. Initially, it was the Fox News Network's decision to limit the big event to only ten candidates, behind an obscure selection of national polls, that captivated the interest of the politically inclined, and sparked a discussion on who, among a qualified field of candidates, would make the cut. Political analysts soon began to make their predictions on how the Republican candidates would address the orange-haired elephant in the room - Donald Trump - and how a neurosurgeon, a businessman, and eight career politicians would make their case for the nomination to the American public while on stage. Since the debate, these same experts have continued to weigh in on the campaigns of its winners and losers, as well as the latest development of the Trump circus involving sexist commentary and a fixture of the American conservative landscape. Yet among the soundbytes, the public statements, and the punditry, one word seems to have been taken for granted. Debate. Was the first GOP debate really a debate?

Consider the following. Debate, the word itself, draws from Old French and ancient Latin roots, meaning "to fight" or, even literally, "to beat down." It has come to describe fights of the spoken word - civilized arguments, spirited discussions, and exchanges of ideas centered on a single resolution or an issue at hand. Last week, twenty four million people definitely did not watch a meaningful exchange of ideas unfold. Instead of a genuine discussion, the first GOP debate, perhaps excluding the brief exchange on national surveillance between Rand Paul and Chris Christie, more closely resembled a crafted question-and-answer session, or an elementary school spelling bee, rather than a real debate. If Ben Carson were to have spelled "interrogation" to the moderators from Fox News, instead of giving his response to a question on waterboarding, I imagine that voters would have been left just as informed about his outlook on the use of torture techniques. Rewarded for his textbook conservative answers, Carson now sits at second place in this week's polls in Iowa.

If Carson, and the rest of the Republican field, were running for office in other democracies, however, the story would probably change. Particularly in the political debates of the UK and Canada this year, candidates have not been rewarded polling surges for vague and lukewarm responses. The debates in both nations encouraged free-flowing discussion on policies surrounding a broader topic, that involved economic statistics and past legislative history, rather than ad hominem attacks and "gotcha" journalism. The media corporations hosting the debates in both nations also made their live events readily available to the public through open-access platforms like Facebook and YouTube, instead of hiding it behind an online pay-wall or a cable subscription. Canadian media even translated their debate into five languages - a service that the millions of Americans who are more proficient in languages other than English would surely appreciate. Though these debates took place within general elections, primaries do exert considerably more influence on voting inclinations that what is commonly perceived, and ought to be held to a similar standard. One has to ask - why can't the American political system do the same?

Before the era of canned speeches and elevator pitches, American politics was fond of genuine debate. In our own nation's political history, our leaders have taken to written pamphlets, public stages, and primetime television to openly discuss the directions that our nation should take, whether it has been Paine and Burke on revolution, Lincoln and Douglas on slavery, or Kennedy and Nixon on national security. Critics may point out that in today's field of seventeen Republican candidates, a meaningful debate would not be possible, and that in an age of social media and shortened attention spans, that the public would not want one anyway. But, this year, as the UK featured seven candidates in their leaders' debate, and Canada featured five, other nations have demonstrated that in-depth discussions among a crowded field of candidates vying for positions of power are achievable, and necessary. Rather than the number of men and women running for president, it is the superficial quality of the American political debate that leaves voters disenfranchised, and makes the hot-air presidential candidacies of men like Donald Trump a reality. The parties, the candidates, and the networks are all to blame.

Let's call the first GOP debate, and the debates to come, what they really are. Last week, in an effort to further conflate entertainment with politics, Fox News packed ten candidates onto a stage to answer a meandering set of questions, designed to fulfill an agenda, and not to start a discussion. Let's not call it a debate.