Does our democracy have a design problem? In this case we don’t mean the Electoral College, but, quite literally design. As in the increasingly garish set design of the stages the candidates are forced to tangle in front of, which look, at best, like a generic “Intergalactic Senate” set from a SyFy network show with a limited budget, and at worse like a hacky summer game show where contestants race against the clock to correctly guess their friend’s most used emojis. It’s really hard to take these debates seriously as important exercises in our democracy when the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race takes place against a backdrop that has more restraint and gravitas.
It’s been an increasing problem for years at primary debates (which unlike the general election debates, are often organized directly by cable news channels), and so far the two Democratic debates held by CNN and MSNBC show no sign that the trend is reversing. Not only are their now light-up (and in MSNBC’s case, color changing) lecterns, but candidates now stand in front of giant digital screens awash in hard blue and red, serving to blur the line between serious business and flashy entertainment. Even worse, these networks show no restraint in taking advantage of every branding opportunity possible, pasting their brand marks in every nook and cranny available. There are now more logos on those stages than there are on a Louis Vuitton bag.
It makes you shudder to think about where this is all heading, and long for the days when debate stages looked no more splashy than an average high school auditorium.
In fact, it’s useful to occasionally remember that at one point in this country’s history that the actual messy business of campaigning for President was seen below the station of anyone with the gravitas to actually be president (they left the dirty work up to surrogates and the party machines). That’s changed over the years, of course, with the advent of technologies air travel and television.
Presidential debates, however, didn’t become common place until 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon faced off in a series of four debates held at television studios, all taking place against backdrops that were practically minimalist by today’s standards.
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1988, and has handled debates between party nominees ever since, and have kept their debate stage design pretty lowkey ever since, generally using the same set-ups year after tear. The biggest flourish? Text from the constitution on the backdrop.
Primary debates are newer affairs (they only became regular features from Democrats in 1976, and Republicans in 1980). Unlike the general election debates, media organizations, generally cable news channels have taken increasingly control of this affairs, and have the increasing game show-like quality of the set design perhaps underlies the idea that they’re more worried about their own ratings and reputations than the delicate work or maintaining a healthy democracy.
Again, it didn’t quite start out that way. Look at how pleasantly boring the set-up for this 1988 Republican Primary debate looked:
Compare that to one from 2016:
Is it any wonder that a man with a relatively boring personality like George H.W. Bush proved victorious in 1988, while the winner in 2016 was a creature that lept forth directly from reality television?
Abraham Lincoln may have helped popularize the idea of debates in American campaigning thanks to his famed series of engagement against his senate opponent Stephen Douglas in 1858, but could we imagine Lincoln delivering anything eloquent in front of these debate backdrops that look like they were pulled from a disc of Fourth of July-themed screen savers meant for a computer running Windows 98? Hardly.
Certainly, someone at these networks are thinking about optics, but not for the benefit of the American people, but rather their own.
While it seems like a subtle addition in wide shots at both the recent CNN and MSNBC debates, a stripe of logos in the background makes the candidates look like they’re speaking in front of a red carpet step-and-repeat full of logos when captured in closeup. I mean, the candidates look like a Real Housewife who has just walked into the launch party of some tragic upstart tequila brand at a New Jersey casino with all that branding going on in the background, and not discussing how to best solve our healthcare problem.
Last night CNN was so downright tacky about including their logo everywhere they could that the candidates were forced to drink out of branded coffee mugs.
If there was any doubt that CNN is now treating debates like game shows, well, they actually did hold a live lottery drawing to determine the distribution of candidates.
Issues of design may be shrugged off by some, but anyone who has experienced both the ambiance of a Chuck E. Cheese and that of a fancy French restaurant knows that the design of your surrounding certainly can set the tone and intentions for a night. Might we want to rethink holding debate on Beat Shazam-style game show sets, lest we want to keep electing Chuck E. Cheese presidents more apt to cable news entertainment than they are the actual business of Governing?