The first debate between presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump aired on Monday, Sept. 25. The Pause was packed with students at the viewing event planned by the Political Awareness Committee (PAC), as were other viewing parties across the nation. NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie kicked off the debate by mentioning the expected viewership, which had the potential to rival that of the Super Bowl. This possibility was presented as a positive sign that America is a politically engaged country. Indeed, the final viewer count was record-breaking: 84 million people tuned in, making this the most-watched debate in American history. But I would argue that this number doesn’t signify the United States’ political engagement or patriotism. Perhaps I’m just overly pessimistic, but I believe the large viewership for this debate is yet another sign of how far this presidential campaign has drifted from the political realm into the realm of entertainment.
To be fair, this election has not been truly centered around politics from the very beginning. I don’t remember much serious commentary about Donald Trump’s candidacy back in June 2015. Similarly, there has been very little serious discussion concerning his comments about immigration and what it might mean if he were to actually become the president. I do, however, remember the fixation of the media on Trump’s personal life. Along with this non-political focus was the general disbelief that he would advance very far in the election, resulting in dismissal of and jokes about his candidacy. The media focused on Trump’s outlandish comments rather than their possible future implications for Americans. This surface level coverage isn’t helped by the fact that Trump is an established figure in American culture, for better or for worse. The same can be said of Hillary Clinton, who has spent several decades in the public eye. Most Americans felt that they knew where they stood with both Trump and Clinton. The media has taken advantage of this fact, choosing to neglect the candidate’s actual positions on the issues. Instead the media continuously drums up the entertainment value of each candidate to draw attention.
As the unprecedented debate viewing numbers show, the entertainment value has not failed the media even in the twilight of the 2016 election. The reality is that we are in the throes of a political atmosphere that prioritizes short sound bites that are easy to turn into memes over civic engagement. To be fair, this is incredibly easy when our candidates do things like attack a sitting senator for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. For this very reason professionals exist who are supposed to explain the news and its consequences to the American people. With each new election cycle, these professionals seem to take it upon themselves to present more and more infotainment – with the result that American voters are more interested in laughing at the election or listening for the next cringeworthy statement than being informed members of the populace. The extremely polarizing candidates have made the 2016 presidential election a laughing stock.
The impulse to make politics (and politicians) funny is not something to be condemned. For instance, a multitude of fantastic political commentary has come from “Saturday Night Live” and other late night comedy shows. I must confess I do love a good meme. Yet I’m still troubled by the way comedic political discourse seems to have bled over into newspapers, television outlets and the like. The fact that the work of “real” journalists has defaulted to mere entertainment for readers and viewers is a problem. If emphasizing the comedic value of candidates is what it takes to hold debates with record viewing numbers, and if these record numbers are what we prioritize in politics today, then so be it. However, if we’re going to turn campaigns and politicians into jokes through the media we can’t pretend that our investment in said campaigns, politicians, or the election in general runs deeper than the jokes themselves.
Dylan Walker ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Mountain Grove, Mo. They major in classics with a concentration in film studies and women’s and gender studies.