In this Sept. 29, 2020, file photo, Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden, right, with moderator Chris Wallace, center, of Fox News during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

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Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

Let me ask you a serious question: Have you ever made a decision about who to vote for based on a debate?

Search your mind, and see if you can come up with a single time it has happened. Think of presidential contests, races for governor, U.S. Senate or the House. Think of your state legislative races, town council or school board. Have you ever made up your mind after you witnessed a political debate?

If you are being honest with yourself, your answer is probably “no.” If it is “yes,” I would wager a guess that it is likely for one of the less partisan “lower” offices in your community, and not for presidential contests. But even then, I think it is likely you could have made up your mind just fine without the debate.

Now, I am sure there are people out there who do genuinely look at the theatrical extravagances that are modern debates as an opportunity to help make a decision about who to vote for. I just haven’t met them.

I bet you haven’t either.

That’s because, particularly for the higher offices, we don’t need them. We get so much exposure to each candidate’s beliefs, statements, policy proposals and political platforms — and with them, their opponent’s rebuttal to each — that no one can intelligently claim a lack of information. Whether it is campaign speeches, political conventions, media interviews, television commercials, social media posts or just general news coverage, we get more than enough, thank you. The last thing we need is more of these people.

Yet some people are still married to the idea of doing debates, pretending that they have real value and demanding that they exist. That’s why so many people were up in arms last week when the Republican National Committee announced that it would be pushing its candidates to swear off debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. If their plan goes forward, you might not get presidential debates in 2024.

The first reaction for many, in hearing this, is to express outrage. “They owe it to the country,” many say. “It is an important opportunity to force candidates to directly respond to each other’s ideas,” claim others. “We need to see their vision for the country, side by side,” say others still.

But is that what you get out of debates? Think back to my original question — have you ever made up your mind based on a debate? If your answer, like mine, is “no,” then what value have the debates given you? Why do you watch? What do you get out of it?

The real answer, for most Americans, is the entertainment it provides.

For better or worse, we love contests. Americans enjoy seeing two gladiators enter a coliseum of sorts, duking it out with one another. We like to see who wins and who loses, and watch the fight play out. It is the same reason boxing fans watch a fight, even if they have a favorite fighter. They want to see that favorite fighter of theirs land a knockout blow, and they find the fight itself thrilling.

Modern debates are a substanceless wasteland of vapidity. For all the supposed high-minded philosophizing, they are for all intents and purposes regurgitated television commercials featuring programmed automatons spewing out practiced lines, soundbites and zingers. We get lame attempts at humor, plastic expressions of humanity and nauseatingly repetitive attempts at relating to the common man.

New policy proposals? Virtually nonexistent, and when they do occasionally show up they are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Thoughtful contrasts of vision for the country? Hardly. Instead, we get mindless bickering and superficial blatherings of differences that hardly matter.

A window into the judgment and character of a potential leader in a setting of stress and challenge? Can you even pretend that is true?

Long gone are the days of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas sparring at length over great questions of existential importance and the future of the nation. Today we get glorified wrestling matches that America pays attention to for the voyeuristic hope that the candidate we have already chosen will give the candidate we dislike a metaphorical pile driver.

Good riddance. I wish that the debates were the substantive, important events that we pretend that they are. But they aren’t, and I say we’re better off without them.


Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...