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Presidential debates are an exercise in masochism

Opinion

The debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been touted as one of the most highly anticipated political showdowns in US history, but it is really just a supreme show of fakery, writes Jesse Barker Gale.

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What is the point of presidential debates? I mean, really, who are they for? Is it to inform viewers? To persuade undecided voters? To expose your opponent as the shallow, greedy, deceitful quasi-criminal you have been telling people they are?

We no longer watch debates to be informed. Perhaps we never did. We know what the candidates will say; they’ve been saying it for months – in the case of this election, years. Trump is unqualified. Clinton is a liar. Trump’s policies will crush the middle and lower classes. Clinton has behaved corruptly in every position that she’s held. Trump is a proud racist. Political correctness is killing this country.

What we will see on the stage tonight is a supreme exercise in fakery. Call it a debate, call it a joint press conference, call it a waste of time. The chances are low that either candidate will mangle their message in a campaign-damning way.

And that’s the worst thing. Somewhere in the range of 100 million people are expected to tune into this debate through some medium, each desperately waiting for the stunningly inconsequential slip that one of the candidates may or may not make.

There will be no “There is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration” (Gerald Ford, 1976), moment for either candidate. There probably won’t even be a “binders full of women” (Mitt Romney, 2012) moment. The networks have refused to fact-check the candidates, an extraordinary undertaking given the content of the election thus far.

Either the candidates will perform well or they won’t. They can both do well, they can both do poorly. The spin room of both campaigns will be at maximum speed, fundraising emails flying out on a minute-by-minute basis, pundits frothing at the mouth as they offer their banal feelings at top speed.

Both candidates have access to the top debate coaches and (despite any and all claims to the contrary) will have spent many hours in practice sessions over the past few months. These sessions aim to hone the candidates’ policy speeches into punchy Twitter-esque moments. Policy-lite. Perfect for the voter who lacks the time to conduct their own research.

It is difficult to imagine that there are still voters who are undecided and that they will come down on a side after this debate. Those who are undecided will choose the path of least resistance and just not vote.

The networks’ refusal to fact-check the election is a dangerous abdication of journalistic responsibility. Unrepentant over their role in originally promoting Trump’s candidacy, they further embolden him, and those who would seek to emulate his political success.

If we truly are concerned with the diminishing of longstanding democratic principles and the rise of corrosive extremist elements, then we need an effective media as well as an informed populace. Each finds strength in the other.

You may think that our political system is poor, but stop and think exactly what worse alternatives lie beyond the jagged edges of our flawed system.

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are those of the author, not of Flinders University or other affiliated institutions.

Jesse Barker Gale is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Flinders University’s School of History and International Relations. Barker Gale has a strong academic and practical background in both the American domestic and foreign policy fields. He is currently continuing with his research on US politics and international relations in the office of US Congressman Jim McDermott in Washington State as an Australian Government Endeavour Postgraduate Scholar 2016. He is also a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University during the scholarship year.

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