Columns

Mitra ’18: Elections and the entertainment quotient

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, March 14, 2016

When I first saw the emerging presidential field last January, I remember making a rather obvious pronouncement: “Well, at least 2016 will be entertaining.” As part of the generation raised on election coverage from “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” I had high expectations. Given that the list of potential nominees included an orange-haired billionaire, an oblivious neurosurgeon, a purported socialist and one of the always-newsworthy Clintons, how could it be otherwise? Though I once looked forward to the hilarity, it took me just a few weeks to realize the extent of my naivete.

Twelve months later, I have completely changed my tune. I crave a dull and dignified election cycle, one in which policy trumps posturing and authenticity beats aggression. When presidential candidates discuss their relative “sizes” on national television, you know the situation can’t get much worse. The Democratic debates have been infinitely more well-informed, but as the race heats up they too are beginning to resemble verbal fistfights.

This election cycle is one of the most hyped in American history — with good reason. More Americans are watching debates this year than in 2007, a significant fact considering that the 2008 “Facebook election” is remembered for its unprecedented levels of social media and public engagement. This time around, the attention is understandable: We want to see the epoch-defining change we were promised eight years ago. But despite our critical need for effective policy-making, substantive policy discussion has been strangely absent from the hype around 2016. Instead, the focus has disproportionately centered on a few headline moments and a lot of Trumpian grandstanding.

Of course, policy know-how hasn’t been the key determinant of voter preferences for a while. It is hard to believe that George W. Bush was elected solely because of his grasp of core political issues. But the real surprise is that likability no longer seems to matter either. If the candidates’ policy platforms and personalities aren’t bringing in votes, what on Earth are voters looking for?

The obvious answer is the entertainment quotient. The two current favorites — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — have received the most screen time on network television among the candidates and have dominated headlines for the better part of a year. In Trump’s case, certainly, his campaign has been bolstered by an unprecedented media surge based on his entertainment value. Trump is a ratings magnet. His supporters may embrace his divisive rhetoric now, but the media coverage of his wild statements and unpredictable actions are what propelled his campaign to the mainstream. On the other hand, disproportionate media coverage has hurt Hillary Clinton at times, as the email scandal in particular has elicited large entertainment value and unwarranted coverage. In this volatile election, the number of newsworthy moments — and the subsequent media engagement — seem a better predictor of results than policies and popularity.

So has electability become more about entertainment value than actual substance? We may never have a conclusive answer to this question, but one thing is for sure: The current GOP field seems to think so. With the exception of Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, they have, at one point or another, abandoned dignity and matched Trump’s bombastic attitude. The mockery of some recent debates only highlights this newfound sensationalism. For the sake of viewers everywhere, I hope we will never have to endure such a farce again.

It is time for the remaining candidates to realize that they are campaigning for the highest office in the nation, not some second-rate reality competition. As we near the end of the primaries, they should stop performing for the audience and start behaving like aspiring presidents. Or at the very least, they should avoid turning televised debates into real-life “SNL” skits.

Because if I wanted to watch scandal-ridden celebrities hurl infantile accusations at each other, I would probably have turned on the Kardashians. They may be outrageous and superficial, but at least they’re not trying to drag the entire country down with them.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu.

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