Good Riddance to Presidential Debates (Democracy Is a Goner in Any Case)

by Neil H. Buchanan

Yesterday, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously to stop working with the Commission on Presidential Debates.  This is the same committee that, less than two months ago, censured Congresspeople Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, a resolution that "passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote without debate or discussion."  That resolution also infamously included the claim that the January 6 rioters were engaged in "legitimate political discourse," an outrageous assertion that the RNC's chair then tried to explain away (rather unsuccessfully).

We are not, in other words, talking about a group of political leaders who are known for putting country above party or even for being grounded in reality.  Basic decency used to be optional (albeit disadvantageous) among that group, but now it is disqualifying.  Even so, because the decision to withdraw from future presidential debates is a matter of pure political strategy rather than some larger question of right or wrong, there is in this context no reason to think that they should take anything into account beyond pure political advantage.  That, after all, is what a national committee for any party would spend most of its time doing.
But no matter whether that decision is good or bad for future Republican candidates, maybe I am wrong that this will not have important impacts on the rest of  us.  Is it possible that their decision is bad for our system of government and the rule of law?  Despite some hand-wringing among well meaning people (which I will summarize below), I believe that is in fact a good day for America.  At worst, it is a push.  Yet that seems counterintuitive.  How can debate not be a good thing in a democracy?

I should be clear up front that this is another of the many columns that I now write that are essentially science fiction.  That is, I often find myself writing about an alternative universe in which America's constitutional republic will survive the next three years of Republicans' shameless efforts to create a one-party autocracy.  Our system of government will not in fact survive, which means that writing about future elections as if they will be meaningful is about as realistic as discussing whether Tony Stark could outwit The Joker.

Clearly, however, I am not the only person who cannot shake the habit of assuming that somehow we are not doomed.  A few days ago, a commentator on one of the cable TV chatfests was earnestly and urgently discussing how Donald Trump's minions are subverting our political system, which he (the commentator) then said would result in "Donald Trump being president for another four years."  So even someone who is actively thinking about the death of the Constitution of the United States innocently lapses back into the idea that Trump could win in 2024 but then (assuming Trump lives that long) peacefully leave office in January 2029!  Why would Trump do that?  Because the Constitution says so?  Are we not paying attention?

And the rot in our system is not only a matter of naked political opportunism.  A few weeks ago, there was briefly some outrage about Ginni Thomas's text messages to Mark Meadows, in which the wife of the current senior Supreme Court justice called on Meadows to support the coup: "Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!...You are the leader, with him, who is standing for America’s constitutional governance at the precipice. The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History."

This was both horrifying and hilarious on multiple levels, but one aspect of that tweet that (as far as I can tell) escaped attention was Thomas's seemingly innocuous word choice "stand firm."  It turns out, however, that this is similar to the time years ago when Republicans started to invoke Dred Scott in contexts that confused everyone else, until we learned that the infamous Supreme Court case had become code among evangelical Christians for opposing abortion.  Interestingly, now-Congressperson Jamie Raskin wrote a law review article about this very issue thirty years ago, after Antonin Scalia had weirdly invoked Dred Scott in his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. CaseyGet it? Scalia and others say. If you oppose slavery (and Dred Scott), you should oppose Roe v. Wade.

How is "stand firm" in that category of religious code?  Even having grown up in a religious household (my father was a Presbyterian minister), I had never been aware of the freighted nature of those words until about ten years ago, when my mother's financial advisor in Ohio left Merrill Lynch to set up his own firm, which he called Standing Firm Investments.  I had been aware that he was a member of a fundamentalist megachurch, so I guess I was not surprised when he excitedly told me why he had given his new firm that name.  It is, he said proudly, an expression of his Christian faith.

A quick online search verifies that "stand firm" is a thing for a certain category of ultra-fundamentalist Christians.  Biblical citations include, among others, Ephesians 6:11 ("Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil."), 1 Corinthians 16:13 ("Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong."), and Philippians 4:1 ("Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.")

We are not, then, merely talking about efforts to create an autocracy.  This is theocracy in the making, pure and simple.  Last December, Professor Colb wrote with understandable alarm about "the theocratic five" justices on the Supreme Court, and I have worried in a similar vein about the Supreme Court's theocratic turn.  (Professor Colb's column discussing "Abortion and the Free Exercise of Christianity" was also excellent).

Clarence Thomas is one of the Court's theocrats, and his wife's more nakedly political work is directed at creating a paradise on Earth for White (ironic, I know) Christian supremacists.  Post-democratic America is not going to be a libertarian's dream (even a dyed-in-the-wool-Republican libertarian), because the people who are pushing the envelope are not interested in personal freedom.  They also cannot be appeased and are unwilling to compromise, because they must "stand firm against the schemes of the devil."

Again, the assault on our political system -- in Ginni Thomas's unintentionally apt words, "America’s constitutional governance at the precipice" -- is no longer merely a matter of a bunch of uberrich, ultra-secretive people hiding behind economic libertarianism as a means of further protecting themselves against wealth taxation, labor unions, and consumer and environmental protections.  Those people and their well funded groups are all still doing enormous damage, but they are now being eclipsed by people for whom this is a matter of blind faith.  Even an Elon Musk would, when given an offer that he cannot refuse, settle for less than everything.  Not so the Ginni Thomas types, who are the ones driving the Republican bus at this point.

All of which is my way of trying to put the news with which I led this column -- the Republican National Committee's decision to sever its ties to the presidential debate system -- into proper perspective.  It is not merely that, as I will argue, their decision is actually good for the rest of us.  Rather, it is so insignificant in the larger sense that we need not worry about it at all.
After the 2016 presidential debates ended, in "No More Debates, Ever" here on Dorf on Law, I called for the end of all such events in the future.  Among other things, they are not even debates, which one might think is a bit of a problem.  That is why most of my writings on this subject refer to the events as non-debates or faux-debates or joint press conferences.  At the end of the 2020 general election, I described the last faux event of the campaign as "the final mutant-debate-oid event of the year."  Perhaps I was being too understated.

The problem is not that the non-debates fail to follow scholastic debate procedures, which is a matter of form, but that they are not debates in substance.  No candidate has any reason to engage with the other's arguments, in part because neither candidate is making arguments so much as reciting talking points and attempting to deliver dramatic zingers.  In 2020, my concern was that the press once again treated a non-debate as if it had had any content at all.  And it is not only the presidential non-debates but the vice-presidential non-debates as well.  For example, Mike Pence successfully sighed his way through his 2016 appearance with Tim Kaine without the press jumping all over Pence in the way that they had ganged up on Al Gore in 2000.

In a segment on Chris Hayes's show last night, one of the NeverTrump Republicans who run the Lincoln Project discussed with Hayes the RNC's decision to end the non-debates.  Both men agreed that the decision was another lamentable step toward autocracy, because of course democracy is about discussion, conversation, honest engagement with people who disagree ... ya know, DEBATE!  On one level, it was a stirring discussion among two people who are truly worried for our country.  It was a civics lesson in the best sense.  They almost changed my mind.  Well, not really, but it was the kind of aspirational argument that can still bring a tear to my eye.

But again, none of that is relevant, because the presidential non-debates are not debates.  They do not serve any of the purposes about which Hayes and his guest waxed poetic.  Perhaps sensing as much, Hayes also offered the fact that Trump's performance in 2020's first non-debate had gone very poorly for the incumbent, apparently to prove that even a non-substantive performance by a candidate can be useful to democracy in allowing voters to see for themselves what a disaster the guy is.  But Trump's supporters believed that he won that debate, and even with everything going against him, the poll numbers were ultimately unchanged by that spectacular car crash.

This means that, even if I am being too pessimistic, which is to say even if American democracy is not doomed, the presidential non-debates would still serve no purpose.  It is not merely the Trumpified Republican Party that has made this all pointless.  It is the entire bothsidesist ecosystem of press coverage, the over-practiced candidates, and the content-free insta-consensus among the pundits ("Kaine seemed too jumpy!"  "Dukakis was too robotic."  “Romney was commanding.”).

The best guess is that the 2024 election will have the look and feel of what has become a normal US presidential election, even though the Republicans will have by that point put in place all of the elements necessary to guarantee that their candidate will be declared the winner.  If there are still quadrennial sham elections after that, they will probably still look like elections used to look.  But honestly, that Republicans are now repudiating the Commission on Presidential Debates is a good thing, no matter what the future looks like.  They were useless in the best of circumstances and harmful in the worst.  In the future, they would have been either empty theater or affirmatively toxic.  Good riddance.