Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Real Loser in the Debates Is You

Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, speaks ahead of the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News on June 26.

The THR columnist and NBA great explains why two nights of "televised scoffing" by the Democrats did almost nothing to enlighten the American public.

The newest season of the reality show “Side-eyeing Toward Washington” kicked off this week with the Democrats’ Horde of Hopefuls having engaged in two nights of televised scoffing, snarking and Spanglish. While it’s all very entertaining to witness the drama of ambitious politicians jockeying for the last seat in Presidential Musical Chairs, the abilities necessary to be successful in this quiz show format of debate are not the same abilities necessary to be the leader of the free world.

Because of the structure of these debates, the facts become less relevant than the style of delivery. (The candidates have one minute to respond to questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups. No opening statements, but time for closing remarks.) With only one minute to answer questions about complex issues, the goal is to say something tweet-worthy rather than explore the issues in depth. To verbally elbow to the front of the pack.

"I think people should tune in tonight to see who makes a fool of themselves," observed former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on the Today show Wednesday. The purpose of the debate, she explained, is to get people watching to send in $10 to the campaign. She and Savannah Guthrie, one of the moderators of the debates, went on to discuss performance strategy with no mention of policies. This focus on style over substance isn’t necessarily journalists’ fault because the format isn’t conducive to more than hopeful sound bites and sales-pitch promises.

As a screen nation, we voters have come to rely on such funhouse mirror versions of the issues, with truth stretched, compacted and fractured into amusing memes and gifs rather than illuminating discourse. For entertainment purposes only. Trump mastered this pageantry format in his 2016 campaign. The quagmire of immigration issues got reduced to “Build that wall!” And, rather than address the intricacies of his opponents’ policies, Trump just chanted, “Lock her up!” or gave them middle school nicknames like “Sleepy Joe.” His idea is that American voters’ intellectual capacity is limited to three syllables.

Rather than reject his style as an insult to the voter and a damaging attack on democracy, we’re still embracing the charade as if it has any meaning at all. Who are these debates meant to persuade? A study of NBC/Wall Street Journal polls of the presidential elections from 1992 through 2012, concluded that head-to-head debates had no discernible effect — whoever was ahead in the polls won.

Debates are much like eyewitness testimony in a court case: the least reliable component in reaching an informed decision. If you’re expecting the debates to give you clarity about which candidate to support, you’re part of what’s damaging democracy. The responsibility of every voting citizen is to do their due diligence in vetting candidates by examining not just what they promise but what they’ve done. This requires using journalistic sources that provide unbiased reporting. Sure, it’s a bit of work, but how better to celebrate Independence Day and honor the Founders than to actually do some research on your phone. Our Founders were children of the Age of Enlightenment, which championed rational thinking and the scientific method rather than blindly following an entitled leader—whether a king, queen or despot. The debates are just a justification for laziness, like someone reading Snapple bottle caps to prepare for the SATs.

The day after each debate, most major news outlets publish a “Who Won and Who Lost” article. That just contributes to the problem because it reduces ideas to performance, which is like judging whether Hamlet is a good play based on Gilbert Gottfried’s acting as Hamlet. I like most of these candidates and most of the ideas they offered for bettering the country, though not all are qualified to be president. The only winners are those whose personalities managed to shake loose enough donations to keep their campaign running. Interrupting, insulting or talking over others doesn’t show a forceful person, just rudeness engendered by the circumstances. It’s Battle Royale in a TV studio. It’s Luke P. kneeing a rival’s head on The Bachelorette. The loser is an informed citizenry.

However, there is a way to fix the debates so they become what they should be: an opportunity to rationally assess the candidates based on their knowledge, record, policies, and passions. The first thing we must do is have a panel of qualified logicians present at each debate to post on a giant screen behind the candidates every time they articulate a logical fallacy. Name calling, slippery slope, false dilemma. Being black doesn’t automatically make you a champion for social justice (see Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson) any more than being a woman makes you a supporter of women’s rights (see Kellyanne Conway and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey). Perhaps when their flawed logic is pointed out in real time, they will be more careful about what they say.

In addition, fact-checking has to take place in real time as well. The Washington Post does an excellent job of this online during the debates, but the public would be better served if every time a candidate makes a false or misleading claim, the actual facts were brought up on screen for the moderator to challenge them about their statements. This, too, would force candidates to be more accurate with their use of massaged statistics or in exaggerating their achievements.

Yes, it’s fun television. But too much is at stake to devalue this important tool in selecting a president who will set the moral, social and economic course of the country. We can’t just go with our gut when handing out that final rose.