Politics, it has long been said, is sports for nerds. Debates and primaries are the big games, with political junkies quick to look up the score in haste if they don’t have time to watch it in real time. And for many, the stakes are as high and replete with tension during Super Bowl season as they are during a presidential election year. The difference, of course, is that the team that wins the Super Bowl gets fancy rings. The candidate that wins the presidency gets to be the leader of the free world. But that doesn’t stop media outlets from covering politics like sportscasters.
In November, CNN released a promo for the “Last GOP Debate of 2015.” Close-up shots of each candidate flashed across the screen as dramatic lighting synced with what sounded like the score from a Lord of the Rings movie. Another CNN promo described a Republican debate as an “epic rematch,” proclaiming that “if you thought round one was intense, you haven’t seen anything yet!” Tweeters described the promo as “the NFL-ization of politics,” while others compared it to an ad for a reality show or Game of Thrones. And New York Magazine featured an article speculating about whether or not CNN would get “the cage match it really wants” with the debate.
While many mocked the way that CNN promoted the December GOP debate, the strategy seemed to work. 18 million people tuned in, making it the third-most watched primary debate ever. The same debate in 2011 brought in only 6.7 million viewers, still considered a large number at the time. Indeed, this election season is a good one for debates in general. CNN’s democratic primary debate in October averaged 15.3 million viewers.
Despite the millions of viewers primary debates draw, many political scientists argue that candidates’ performance in debates have little effect on who ends up winning elections. While certain aspects of these events, like candidates’ appearances, have been shown to have some effect on whether or not candidates benefit from debates (as famously demonstrated with the first televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon), a study by Columbia University’s Robert Erikson and Temple University’s Christopher Wlezien found that polls generally do not change much after debates. Other studies have yielded similar conclusions. But if debates do so little to sway Americans’ opinions then why do millions tune in to watch them? Because politics is entertaining.
At first glance, it seems that more people finding entertainment in politics could be a good thing: it seems that it should lead to higher levels of civic engagement. However, its negative ramifications seem to outweigh the positive ones. While common sense would dictate that the more people pay attention to politics, the more they vote, the numbers do not necessarily reflect that. While the New Hampshire primaries this cycle saw record turnout, the Iowa caucuses saw lower turnout than in 2008. It is possible that more people talking about or following politics does not necessarily lead more people to the voting booths. And, even if the entertainment value of politics did lead to overall higher voter turnout, it would be doing so for the wrong reasons.
The electorate is increasingly galvanized by superficial elements: not politicians’ political agendas, but rather their entertainment value or likability. Several candidates this election cycle have been capitalizing upon bombastic statements — Trump’s poll numbers seem to consistently rise after he makes comments, like his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Polls pay so much attention to which candidates are considered “trustworthy” at any given time because Americans will vote for whom they like.
It is unrealistic and unreasonable, after all, to expect that Americans elect a leader based on their analysis of proposed policy alone. This would be impossible, actually, because most Americans have a very limited understanding of how the government is structured in the most basic sense; according to a 2014 poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 36 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial). 35 percent could not name a single one. According to the same poll, only 27 percent of Americans know that a two-thirds vote from the House of Representatives and the Senate is required to override a presidential veto, and 21 percent of Americans wrongly believe that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress.
It is problematic for a country with democratically elected leaders to have such civically uneducated citizenry, especially when it comes to the structure of the federal government and the executive’s role within society. While the fact that only 34 percent of Americans can name a single Supreme Court justice indicates that there is much to be desired in American civic education, the immediate effects of the dearth of knowledge are not nearly so severe. When so few Americans grasp the basic structure of the US government, how can voters be expected to understand the nuances between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ stances on health care or Wall Street regulation?
The problem is that they don’t, and herein lie the inherent pitfalls of democracies. When politics devolves into entertainment, it can potentially get voters more involved, but it does not make them more educated. Rather, turning politics into entertainment presents voters with a fun array of characters to choose from without any deeper understanding of how each candidate would change their lives once elected. While it is commonly accepted that a successful democracy is at least in part distinguished by a high voter turnout, this often means that voters are largely uneducated about not only the candidates and their platforms, but also the structure in which they will operate.
The end result of all this is far from optimal. The candidate who appeals personally to the largest amount of Americans is not necessarily the one who best upholds their ideals. In turn, the best way to get Americans more engaged in politics is not to report on candidates in a way that entertains, but rather to improve civic education so that the citizenry can make better-informed decisions.