The level of debate – in the US and in Cambridge – is only getting lowerJoe Souza

“No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!” bellowed Donald Trump in the final presidential debate. In the run-up to 8th November, or as it’s also known, ‘Apocalypse Now: Please Let us Burn, Anything Would be Better than this Shitstorm’, Trump and Clinton have faced each other in three debates, each hosted by a different news network, and each leading us to ask why we deserve this.

From Trump shouting “Wrong!” over Clinton, to Clinton coining the least well-improvised fake off-the-cuff catch phrase, “Trumped-up trickle-down economics,” these ‘debates’ have shown us the art of rhetoric in its most grotesque form. With even debates at the Cambridge Union also becoming increasingly obsolete, is it time to ask whether there is no way back from this perpetually consumerist and popularised situation in which we find ourselves?

I am not suggesting that the staggeringly awful state of debate, especially in American politics, is a new phenomenon. Since their inception in 1976, televised presidential debates have been the stage for gross manipulations of truth and other general fuck ups. In 1976, Gerald Ford happily concluded that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”, and in 1992’s VP debate, Admiral James Stockdale threw the entire format into disrepute with the very fair question: “Who am I? Why am I here?” I don’t know, Admiral, and if I’m honest, I don’t quite know why presidential debates are still happening.

The problem with these debates, and debates more generally, is twofold: first, any vestige of what could even be considered true has vanished into the ether; secondly, the popularisation of the format has led to its brutal manipulation by both the media and the candidates, transforming what should be an informative and important debate into a farce.

In a brilliant article for CNN, Kate Maltby compares Trump’s behaviour in the second presidential debate to theatre and reality television. Recall the horrific moment that Trump walked around the stage to stand unnaturally close to Clinton, while she was talking, in order to remain in shot for the television? What resulted was a bizarre but effective blend of reality TV and presidential debate.

In the media, the debates have been hyped-up farcically. NBC’s trailer for the second presidential debate was literally more dramatic than that of any Die Hard film. The opponents were compared to boxing champions and their faces juxtaposed in a Cage/Travolta parody – except this was completely unironic. John Oliver, Seth Meyers, and all the famous faces of late night television ridiculed the media for their hyperbolic coverage. But this commercialisation is more serious than any comedian has given credit for – especially when there are so many lies.

The second reason for the corruption of debate as a practice is the downfall of truth. At least 28 of Trump’s statements in this most recent debate were either partially or entirely false. Clinton’s claim that her tax plan won’t add “a penny” to the national debt was no better, but it is impossible to get away from the obvious lies of Trump – like his assertion that Clinton will double taxes, that her state department lost $6 billion, and that his sexual harassment accusers were not known to him and that their claims have been “debunked”. Oh, and of course, the lie that the election is rigged.

However, look around you, and you’ll see that things are not much better in Cambridge. Before any Unionistas harang me for claiming that the standard of debate in their hall is no better than on stage in the presidential debates, let me assure you that this is not what I am saying. What I am suggesting is that both Union debates and presidential debates are now irrelevant and unhelpful.

The Cambridge Union society, or as it would rather be known, ‘I Have a Spare Few Hundred Quid Lying Around so Fuck the Plebs’, has been a venerated space for debate for over 200 years. But that’s exactly the problem: the famous hall has remained the seat of intellectual discussion for the privileged, by the privileged, and is set to stay that way. There is no comparably-sized arena for a more equal debate in the University. Essentially, the presidential debates are doomed because they have become too popularised, while the Union debates are irrelevant because they shun the masses.

A news search for the Union returns precious few results, and no significant, wider debate has been prompted by issues raised within it’s walls. The Union may follow a civilised debate style, more akin to the approach championed by 18th-century debater John Henley, but no matter how hard they try (the recent inclusion of a debate on artificial intelligence would have been great, if more people had seen it), it is impossible to combat its colossal irrelevance.

So where does the future lie for debate? I know that my comparison between the Union and American politics may seem tenuous, but both examples represent the potential death knell of rhetoric for different reasons. Perhaps the introduction of live fact-checking in presidential debates would solve the problem – although Jeremy Kyle-style lie detector tests seem more fitting. Eliminating the reality television-esque component from serious debate may be difficult when one candidate is an overgrown child Apprentice star, but some form of neutering is necessary.

As for the irrelevancy of Union debating in Cambridge, I might suggest a number of answers: abolish the fees and rid us of the society entirely, or fund a free, more open debate stage. Let’s reclaim debate from the privileged few – but just make sure we don’t give it to the Americans

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