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The specter of an American presidential election without a televised debate

Photo: Spencer Platt Getty Images via Agence France-Presse “Nothing can replace the fact that candidates debate among themselves and in front of the American people their vision for the future of the nation,” wrote the five major American television networks in a joint letter.

Fabien Deglise

April 10, 2024 Analysis

  • United States

The 2024 American presidential campaign has promised for weeks to be unusual, and not only because of the participation of a former president, deposed in 2020 after a single term and since hounded by the courts for attempting, among other things, to reverse the results of the vote in his favor.

This race for the White House could also make history by becoming the first since 1976 not to offer voters televised debates between the two main candidates, Donald Trump for the Republican camp and Democratic President Joe Biden. A situation which illustrates as much the deleterious climate in which American politics has been immersed for several decades as the consequences of the divide and of uninhibited political violence on the health of the democratic institutions of the country that the republican populist encourages in the public space.

“If no televised debates are held this year, it will be a bad sign for American democracy, said Gibbs Knotts, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of Charleston, contacted by Le DevoirWednesday in South Carolina. These debates have a long history in the United States. They are a way for presidential candidates to establish a civilized dialogue and help voters make a more informed decision about voting. If Biden and Trump do not debate in 2024, I hope that this will not mark the end of this important democratic practice and that those who succeed them will restore it. »

In a rather atypical move, the five major American television networks — ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox News — prepared a joint letter this week in which they urge Joe Biden and Donald Trump to participate in the televised debates currently scheduled for the U.S. election campaign schedule by the Commission on Presidential Debates. These face-to-face meetings are scheduled for September 16 and October 1 and 9. One of them could be reserved for vice-presidential candidates. The existence of this letter, in draft form, was revealed on Tuesday by the New York Times.

“General election debates are a rich tradition in our American democracy, having played a vital role in every presidential cycle over the past 50 years,” summarizes the consortium which, according to the daily, seeks to attract other media and news organizations. “In each of these elections, tens of millions of people watched the candidates debate, side by side, in a clash of ideas, to win the votes of American citizens. »

He added: “If there’s one thing Americans can agree on in this divisive time, it’s that the stakes in this election are exceptionally high. There is no substitute for candidates debating among themselves and in front of the American people their vision for the future of the nation. »

Republican ambiguity

At the beginning of March, Donald Trump challenged Joe Biden to debate with him, “anytime, anytime and anywhere,” he wrote in capital letters on his social network, even though, two years ago, the Republican National Committee, under the influence of the populist and his numerous complaints, had decided to withdraw from the events orchestrated by the Commission on the presidential debates. The ex-president then denounced the schedule of the debates, their format, the selection of moderators and a bias towards the Democrats.

Ironically, Donald Trump did not participate in any of the debates of the candidates for the Republican nomination, believing, even before the first voters had decided last January on this race, to be the undisputed holder of the Republican candidacy for 2024.

Joe Biden, for his part, has not completely rejected the idea of ​​a debate, but he attaches one condition: “It will depend on the behavior [of Donald Trump]”, a- he said a few weeks ago. His campaign team is indeed worried about the Commission's ability to make the former reality TV star and politician with authoritarian tendencies respect the rules of debate established by the two parties, once he is on scene.

In 2020, the two candidates faced off in two planned debates during the campaign, with a third canceled after Donald Trump contracted COVID-19. The first face-to-face took place in a chaotic and tense atmosphere. Donald Trump took advantage of his platform to discredit the American electoral framework, calling among other things on his supporters to monitor the polling stations during an election that he would subsequently present, without ever providing proof, as electoral fraud . He also, live, invited the supremacist group of the Proud Boys to “be ready”. The group was a key player in the insurrection launched by populist supporters against the Capitol and American democracy a few months later.

“In the current state of the American political climate, voters are unlikely to gain much useful information from a debate,” assures political scientist John W. Kitch, a specialist in democratic institutions at Texas State University, in an interview. . These debates have long been more about style than substance, and if candidates refuse to participate, it should be seen more as a sign that we live in an age of bitter partisanship rather than a sign that we are living in in a democracy in danger. »

Since the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, which affirmed the power of images in political communication, the format of these face-to-face meetings has not evolved much. However, they remain media events massively followed by viewers. In 2020, an average of 68 million people watched the debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, far more than the audience for a State of the Union address.

“These debates no longer have much impact today, as was the case in the past, on the outcome of the November vote,” says Gibbs Knotts. But they play an important role in helping voters learn more about political issues. Research has even shown that these debates increase voters' confidence [in institutions and politics] in addition to increasing the chances that they will vote. »

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116