Below is my column from the November 2016 issue of the Sturbridge Times Magazine.
The Most Important Election in History, again
By Richard Morchoe
On November 8th, America goes to the polls to elect a president. On Long Hill, we have found the whole exercise depressing. It is not just the rancor of the campaign that has been disheartening. Rather, what is daunting has been the hopeless nature of the debates.
In truth, the meetings between the two candidates are not even close to debates. A debate is two sides expressing views on a question. In a formal debate, there would be an affirmative and a negative. Each side makes opening statements that are rebutted in closing remarks. When I was a debater back in high school, in the Jurassic era, the teams would question each other midway through the contest.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates are American history lore. Though for a senatorial contest, the meetings could be considered a prelude to the 1860 presidential election. The two candidates spoke for hours and the audience’s attention never wavered. Such events could never happen today. Our attention spans started to decline with the age of television. In the internet era, it will not be long before we cannot concentrate on anything longer than a few nanoseconds.
The modern era of presidential debates began with the 1960 election. Having seen it as a ten-year-old, I remember it more for the structure. Two of the four clashes had eight-minute opening statements by both men. After that, they were questioned by a panel with two and a half minutes to answer and one and a half for rebuttal. Thereupon, each man would get a three-minute closing statement.
The videos and transcripts are extant and can be viewed online. To my generation, it was a golden age. Back then one had to be able to follow arguments and counter arguments as opposed to the steady stream of sound bites.
The current format seems to be copying one of the lower genres of televised entertainment, reality shows. It should have served Donald Trump well. He actually was a reality show host and his business has been as much show biz as anything. During the primaries, he was able to run rings around his opposition. Now he seems to be floundering. A true debate might work better as it could force him to be more disciplined.
His problems have helped Hillary Clinton as she was not going to be the warmth candidate. Also, she has the difficult task of having both to defend and distance herself from the administration. The former Secretary of State is not the first politician to have to sort of say, “Things are great, but I’ll fix it.” The Donald should have been able to blow her out of the water, but he is on the defensive.
Instead we have had only charges and countercharges of corruption and skullduggery. We yield to no one in wanting to believe all of them, but we can’t keep up.
The partisans of each nominee love to speak of them as near deities. Having been around the block, the thought that the new duet of demi-gods is even better than the previous set is difficult to swallow. Somehow, it is hard to picture Donald as Zeus or Hillary as Athena.
At this point in the history of the Republic, one should hesitate to say that the format is not an insult to the intelligence of the viewing public. If there were truly an outcry, the defects would have long ago been corrected.
The founders feared direct election of the president for reasons that should be evident during the current round. They foresaw the demagogic agitation. Their answer was the electoral college. Each state would get a certain number of electors based on congressional representation. The state legislatures were to appoint the electors who would then meet and decide on a president and vice president.
Sadly, the system quickly broke down. The Constitutional Convention did not see the rise of parties. In the third election, Jefferson and Burr, presidential and vice presidential nominees of the same Party, both received an equal number of votes. It took 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to decide the issue with much bad blood resulting.
Over time, “reforms” made the system what it is today. The Electoral College still exists, but it is, however, the popular ballot that decides how the state electors vote.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the authors of the Federalist Papers who convinced many that a federal government was a good idea would be disappointed in our seedy carnival of an election.
As the November Sturbridge Times Magazine comes out before the election, we could be brave and make a prediction. That is not going to happen. Instead, we want to extend the same solace we take in the event to everyone. The good news will be that one of them lost. The bad news is the other won.