What kind of Television Show is a Presidential Debate?

Sorry I never wrote a second night piece about the Democratic debates, I was too busy catching up with a friend having some wonderful margaritas, which has its own political value although I’m not sure what. Safe to say this post isn’t about that.

The Presidential Campaign debates have been talked about as many different things and evaluated every single way. So it’s tough to talk about them in a way that doesn’t fall into a cliche of some kind or another. I have been trying to think of new approaches to discussing them, and one I want to explore here is the idea that the Presidential Campaign Debates are a TV genre. They have been on television since the 1960 elections, and they will continue to be on TV as well as YouTube and other online places like Twitch. TV genre shapes Netflix and Hulu is basically a lateral. So the question I want to ask is: What are the Presidential Debates about if they are a TV show?

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Most people I know see the Presidential Campaign Debates as a lower quality version of the TV show The West Wing, which they do not read as fantasy at all, but rather an ideal image of the perfect government. It is weird - like Plato’s Republic - because the ideal that it presents is so clearly flawed. But the reading you could make of The West Wing here is it shows perfect flaws, not brought on by any uncontrollable horrors, but the attitudes and principles of those involved. If someone fails, it’s on them. The structure of the system, no matter what you think of it, is fantastic (in all the ways you can define that word). I have never liked The West Wing even as a TV show, but many people see it as an example to which the actual government should conform and try to be more like. They see a fantasy show as providing insights into how we should speak, relate to, and participate in our government. This is so weird to me - like someone relying on Spongebob Squarepants to provide an ideal paradigm for marine biology.

It really shouldn’t be that strange. This is history. The Iliad and the Odyssey were used by ancient people as a source of entertainment, fantasy, and normative judgement. There were certainly things in these pieces that should happen and there were appeals made in public argument based on what these narrative fictions convey or imply. So there’s not that much different here.

My concern is that the metaphor is misplaced. The West Wing is about achieving a sense of justice that doesn’t care too much about human motives, human communication, or rhetoric. It cares in a scientific way about getting the right answer. That’s great for when you are planning a space mission (although I’m not sure how great it is to only rely on one type of thinking for any project of such magnitude). The West Wing is always on the side of the viewer in conveying an alliance between them and justice. It always wins out no matter whether we like the way it was presented or not. The Presidential Debates are not like this. They are very disappointing because there is no script manager, no writer’s room, no producer overseeing the arc of the series. There are people there making appeals for why they should be understood, even if we get many different images of them. The Debates appeal to motive in a way that The West Wing does not. Motive doesn’t matter in the face of glorious American governmental perfection.

The Presidential Election debates are a lot more like a very different TV show called Catfish. This show features two hosts who are not professional investigators, police or anything of the sort. They are tasked by someone to help them uncover whether or not the person they are romantically involved with on the internet is a “real person.” This is the conceit. Catfish is really about human motives, attitude, and rhetoric - the capacity for judgement and articulation when living in a wildly contingent universe.

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Catfish is over before it begins. We all know that the person is not going to be really who they are online, they are going to be caught, and they are going to meet Max and Nev and the victim (as well as a camera crew of 10 plus people) in a public park to confess what they did. There’s going to be some soul searching, but in the end both people are going to admit that their motives were not appropriate, or the situation in which they were involved was complex, and there’s no simple answer to what happened. The entirety of the show is about motive: Why did you do this? Why did you pretend to be someone else? And the answer given is never used to excommunicate; instead it’s used to construct another narrative, another set of motives by which everyone involved can, in Nev’s frequent phrasing “learn something and move on.”

The Presidential Campaign debates have the plot of Catfish. Here are the images of the candidates as you met them through mediation. Here are the questions: Why did you say this? Why did you do this? Why would you do this? etc. All of these questions are meant to reveal who is operating behind the cover. What is that nexus of motives that made you create this Presidential persona? Why are you trying to have a virtual relationship with America by pretending to be the person in this photo?

The only difference between the Presidential Campaign Debates and Catfish is one that I hope we can figure out a way to include. Each episode of Catfish ends with some time passing and a nice video call where everyone discusses their new nexus of motives. This is how Catfish invokes what Kenneth Burke calls the “comic frame” - that interpretation of human beings as deeply mistaken but correctable. They can always shift to a more appropriate, or better, nexus of motives. In the Presidential Debates - as we saw with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - the frame is a tragic one. Everyone is fatally flawed by the revelation of distance between action and motive. Even when Pete Buttigieg takes responsibility for the incredibly white police department of South Bend, it’s not seen as a moment of redemption, but a possible stain on his soul. When people are not seen as identifying with a set of motives, but are their motives, full stop, there is only one thing left to do. They have to be excommunicated.

So much of our politics are based on the tragic frame, it would be nice for the Presidential Campaign debates to realize they are not the form of the ideal politics of The West Wing but much more in line with the MTV show Catfish. It really depends on if you are a Platonist like Aaron Sorkin who likes to re-articulate the gap between the ideal and the practice or if you are Sophist like Max and Nev who work within convention and contingency to change minds and feelings about others who have done wrong. Perhaps Max and Nev should moderate the next Presidential debate. Would love to see the debate shot with a handheld Cannon point and shoot.