The Debate Myth: Advice from a therapist

2020 presidential debate

Attention Democratic Presidential Candidates:

You’ve studied the issues, honed your policy proposals, reviewed videos, consulted political experts, prepared remarks and practiced with surrogates. But have you talked to a psychotherapist?

Naturally, you will be anxious. Any time you feel emotionally invested in something (eg.; a job interview; medical diagnosis; first date) and you don’t have complete control over the outcome – which is pretty much always – it’s human nature. Don’t even try to talk yourself out of it. However, anxiety can be compounded by unrealistic expectations.

Which brings me to the point of this article. Hyping up the “2020 Presidential Campaign Debates” makes for good ratings, but puts unnecessary pressure on candidates, particularly with ten competing at once for air time. Debates should be about informing the public and contrasting ideas, but they’ve morphed into political theatre. The media is fixated on performance and tussles between candidates. It reminds me of reality TV, creating conditions destined to cause drama.

Some of you (like me) are old enough to remember when Party conventions were more than pageants. They served a practical purpose. Platform policies were leveraged in exchange for votes from delegates. The position of Vice-President was a prize for working hard and galvanizing a lot of voters. Being a “political insider” was not a dirty word. Although way too homogeneous, at least they had expertise and a familiarity with the candidates. I can’t think of a single Presidential candidate who survived that process who didn’t at least have a command of the issues and experience governing. And, because the candidates had insider support, they actually did have “all the best people” wanting to work in their administration. Under this process, I have a hard time believing the GOP establishment would have nominated Donald Trump.

The idea that a good debate performance has bearing on who makes a good president is ludicrous! So stop accepting their exaggerated relevance! You are enabling a process that is harmful to our country.

I know you want to win, but it should never be at the country’s expense. Yet, that’s exactly where we are. Politicians are so fixated on winning, they start wars, misappropriate funds, twist laws and circumvent democratic procedures to do so. This idea that you have to be in-charge to implement change, is why Congress is so dysfunctional. It also explains how the Office of the President has accrued so much executive power.

If you go along with this charade, you’re as responsible as the Republicans for our dysfunctional government.

So take advice from a psychotherapist: be honest with the American people. Tell them “soundbites, zingers and ‘gotcha’ moments are superficial and unimportant.” (They’re also a lazy way to pick a president, but I know you can’t say that.) Hold Americans responsible for learning more about you. Remind them debates are one of many steps to choosing a candidate.

Since I have no faith the media will frame debates this way, it’s up to you. Push back on efforts to label and simplify complex issues. Challenge reporters who ask about theatrics when they should be asking about policy. Wait until you’re one of three or four candidates before debating. Tell the networks, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to debates, “but I’m happy to do a town hall.”

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