Political debates have strayed from their purpose

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

As they competed for an Illinois Senate seat in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, two of the most significant leaders of the late antebellum period, engaged in a series of debates on slavery. Long-term, the Lincoln-Douglas debates stifled Douglas’s political career while simultaneously elevating Lincoln into the national forefront and heralding the 1860 Presidential Election.

Long ago, political debates were more strictly confined to policy and delved a bit more deeply into candidates’ various positions and other serious topics.

But now, in an age where soundbites and tweets are about the maximum digestible amounts of messaging that people can absorb, debates are merely political theater. It is an amalgamation of entertainment, it’s personality-driven, and in general, modern debates are mostly reaffirmations for each candidate’s respective supporters.
I see too often that viewers value the wrong things in debates.

In Pennsylvania’s recent Senate debates, Democratic candidate John Fetterman was widely quoted, “I do support fracking, and I don’t, I don’t — I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.” This statement was the biggest takeaway for many people. Yes, that is an incoherent statement from Fetterman, but are those 20 seconds all that people got out of the debate — nothing about policy?

Fetterman had a stroke in May and stumbled on his words a few times during the debate. He is working on remedying the effects of his stroke-induced auditory processing disability as he recovers. Because of that, he has trouble parsing sounds in a high-stress environment like a debate. But that does not mean he is unfit to be a senator.

It is difficult to tell whether or not undecided voters are getting enough out of these debates. On the other side of the spectrum, the left still called upon the talking point that Mehmet Oz is not a Pennsylvania resident and, therefore, not a true Pennsylvanian. Why is it we repeatedly hear the same rhetoric about candidates after debates? Part of it is due to the polarized environment that leaves voters feeling particularly intransigent where party loyalty may outweigh the pressing issues, or in many cases, where voters have become aligned with one prevailing issue.

For many, the answer may lie in the fact that candidates often make promises during campaign season — and in debates — that they are never going to keep. Sometimes they are paying lip service; other times, they lack the mandate to follow through. It is rare for a candidate to legitimately connect with the sentiments of the voting public, a power which can truly galvanize a movement. Obama had it; Trump had it. Who is breaking through in that manner in this election, let alone for either party’s prospects in 2024?

Voters are not “issue calculators.” While issues are obviously important, that is not how people decide. It really is a decision many make on vibes.

The Pennsylvania Senate race has been more “vibe-heavy” than perhaps any other significant election in the nation. According to an Oct. 24 AdImpact report, more than $167 million has been spent on advertisements, with 25 percent being based on the personalities of candidates. The Pennsylvania U.S Senate race has been a contest dominated by memes and characterized by personal attacks.

The aforementioned transcendent candidates truly espoused their convictions, regardless of what one may feel about their politics. Obama and Trump used their magnetic approaches to attract voters who were able to then connect to their positions on key issues. These candidates were able to forge strong support, beyond typical rhetoric, in their debates. Here is to hoping more candidates take similar approaches in the future.

In the nation’s four key battleground states, the recent debates ahead of Election Day may not have done much to convince people to switch their allegiances. Hopefully, voters (especially here in Pennsylvania) can see past the style points and return to the quaint mindset that the issues and candidates’ respective positions are what matters most, so we can get past the ping-pong politics of partisanship that have put a stranglehold on our country.