To say the last seven days of the political news cycle have been exhausting would be the understatement of the decade … or, well, maybe the last seven days.
After the national embarrassment that was the presidential debate on Sept. 29, the political spinning of President Trump’s COVID-19 infection and the president’s doctors obfuscating questions from the press after said infection, voters are surely exhausted by each new jab from politicians across the political aisle.
The American political environment is rife with issues fueling these exhausting and confusing news cycles, but the framing of politics by campaigns and the media that uses hyper-masculine imagery and language and metaphors of fighting and warfare exacerbates the issue. Dialing back the heated and oftentimes uncontrolled behavior of politicians in an already-flammable political atmosphere would help dampen the flames, even if just a little bit.
In advertisements and press interviews with campaigns and people close to the president before the presidential debate last week, language and imagery prepared the audience for an angry, unhinged debate from the start.
With news organizations creating promotion content featuring Trump and Biden facing each other with angry expressions on their faces to news coverage using verbs like “go head-to-head” and “face off,” to Eric Trump in an interview with Fox News anticipating the debates to be an “absolute bloodbath,” it’s no wonder the performance ended up looking how it did. It’s so frustrating to watch as these debates are covered more like WWE fights than conversations between two people on public policy and a vision for America.
There is no positive effect of using such combative language. The purpose of these debates is to help the American public decide who they are going to vote for, and it’s clear that the behavior displayed at last week’s debate was anything but helpful. By dialing down the combative language and imagery before and after the debate, the media and campaigns can start to make these debates more constructive and worthwhile.
Of course, it’s not just the fighting language that causes problems when it comes to debates and political campaigns. The toxic masculinity that has been displayed by both presidential campaigns (though definitely more by the Trump/Pence campaign) has been overt and exceedingly unhelpful in creating a healthy atmosphere for constructive debates and information about the candidate’s positions.
Trump made a wildly inappropriate sexual innuendo after moderator Chris Wallace asked him to “let [Biden] finish.” Biden himself called Trump a “clown,” a liar, “the worst president America has ever had,” and even told him to “shut up, man.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that voters would not have allowed a female candidate to behave in such a manner. In fact, in reference to her past debate performance, Biden allies were concerned that vice-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris was “too ambitious,” according to a CNBC story released in July before Harris was announced as the nominee for vice president. Such an attack would not be leveraged against a man, at least not describing a man’s ambition as a negative quality.
Additionally, the racism at these debates and throughout the campaign trail have been absurd. The president’s command to white supremacists to “stand back and stand by” at the debate was completely unacceptable. Not to mention, moderator Chris Wallace labeling “Race and Violence in Our Cities” as a debate topic is racist in and of itself. First off, race is not the issue; racism is the issue.
Secondly, using the correct language when it comes to these issues and not tying people of color to violence has to be a change that candidates and the media are willing to make.
In the end though, the reason debates are framed in this way is because it’s what gets views. Americans live in a society deeply entrenched in late-stage capitalism, so media and campaigns are going to do what they can to make as much money as possible, which means they are going to ratchet up the drama and conflict.
The thing is, these debates aren’t helpful if they resemble WWE fights and reality TV more than informative and constructive conversations. The audience has to demand change if we’re going to fix this issue.
This is not to say debates and politics have to be boring. In fact, they can be quite exciting. In the end, politics are supposed to be about making our society a better place to live, which is perhaps one of the most exciting and worthwhile things to think and talk about.
Though candidates obviously have different ideas on how to get the country there, the coverage by the press and the advertisements from campaigns certainly don’t have to be framed with such violence and machismo. It’s not good for anyone.