Each election cycle there is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing from the media and intelligentsia that the election process, and the country at large, has been "dumbed down" to a dangerous degree. There is always a nostalgic sense that elections from just a few cycles back featured more intellectually capable candidates, or more substantive debates. Perhaps these guardians of the American Intellect have been around long enough to remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but frankly, I don't know if any disinterested observer of any intelligence would conclude that our televised presidential debates of the past several generations were won by 'substantive' arguments. They are more geared to photo-op style entertainment, and victory relies more upon posture, catch-phrases, and spin than upon serious issues of political philosophy, ethics, or morality. In actual substance, both parties resemble each other more closely than is generally observed. No matter who is president, we will continue a path of global economic expansion, social decadence, and militarism. The big differences will only be who gets the most power and profit. As Bill Clinton once (too accurately) mocked George W. Bush in the 2000 election, the debate seems more over whose fraternity will get control than serious issues.
If anyone doubts this, consider the presidential debates since 1980. Does anyone remember anything substantive about any of them? Let's consider who 'won' the debates and why, just based upon generally accepted popular memory.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan scored a rhetorical victory, showing no profound political or philosophical depth, by muttering "There you go again." It was without substance, but 'won' the debate.
In 1984, Reagan once again routed his opponent by not holding his opponent's 'youth and inexperience' against him.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush told the lie America wanted to hear about taxes.
In 1992, Bush was foolish enough to check his watch (for some reason it's difficult to find a YouTube link for this), and Bill Clinton felt our pain.
In 1996, Bob Dole couldn't convince "Soccer moms" that he knew who they were, while telling them he cared about their vote.
In 2000, Al Gore failed to intimidate George W. Bush, play-ground style. This major faux pas was enough to convince America that Bush had won the debate, it seems.
It's hard to imagine a series of debates more focus-group tested and safely played than 2004. The major concern of both candidates seemed to be to avoid 'gaffs' or faux pas. They succeeded so well that none of us remember much of anything at all about them.
In 2008, Barack Obama sidestepped issues of human rights, science, and anthropology by saying they were above his pay grade. That was good enough for the electorate!
In 2012, Mitt Romney revealed his strategy for women voters: binders of women!
In 2016, Donald Trump is attempting the Jerry Springer style, and Hillary Clinton is taking no risks of substance.
People of America, these are not real debates. We should demand more, but if social media is to be believed, we actually ask for even less. These are media spectacles; shallow popularity contests. And because they are run by the major parties, who insist on the format of the debates, and ensure no real challenging issues or actual point by point follow ups, we will continue this until the electorate refuses to participate.
Ultimately, our 'debates' are merely another chance for candidates to tell the public why their plan to make us richer and destroy our enemies surpasses their opponent's plan, which is inevitably dedicated to those same goals. The goals themselves are never seriously challenged, and the electorate seems not to care. Contrary to this, I personally believe the electorate does care, but are funneled to these goals throughout the entire election process. We keep choosing the 'lesser of two evils' all the way to the endgame of our ethical dilemmas being all but completely ignored by the time of the general election. And we accept this outcome cycle after cycle. The end result is informative: we are the most powerful and richest nation in the history of the world, and yet this is what we're discussing. Shouldn't we be more reflective and responsible than this?