“American Presidential campaigning will never be the same again.” This was the Milwaukee Journal’s response, in 1960, to an event that has since become the stuff of political legend.
It was the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and the first nationally televised debate in a general election. It remains the most-watched debate, when adjusting for population size, in U.S. campaign history, at least, perhaps, until Monday night, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face off in the first of three scheduled debates between now and election day. Back in 1960, the hour-long broadcast was immediately recognized as a symbol of a political and technological revolution, but television’s long-term effect on the democratic process was less certain.
Rarely are worst-case-scenario fears about emerging technologies realized. The written word certainly diminished the oral tradition, for example, but it didn’t dull human intellect as Socrates feared. And the transatlantic telegraph forever changed the way humans communicate, but it wasn’t inherently “too fast for the truth.” These sorts of concerns are typically overblown, misdirected, and rooted in a commitment to the status quo.
Fears about the intersection of presidential politics and television broadcast, however, present a curious exception.
Fifty-six years after technology critics worried that television would revolutionize—and degrade—American politics, Donald Trump is the embodiment of their worst fears: He is a candidate who picks stunts over substance, who deliberately obfuscates rather than clarifies his thinking before the public, and who routinely tells blatant lies as part of a political performance that’s tailor-made for the modern spectacle of broadcast politics.
The ugliness of presidential campaigns predates Trump by generations, but it was never quite like this before.
On the evening of September 26, 1960, Kennedy and Nixon debated domestic policy before a television audience of some 66 million people; the equivalent of nearly 37 percent of the population at the time. (Estimates of viewership at the time were even higher, closer to 74 million people, according to The New York Times that year.) In seven cities—New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Washington—more than half of the population tuned in, according to estimates from the American Research Bureau.
It was an unprecedented television event with an enormous audience, decades before broadcasts were seen as the mass shared experiences they would eventually become. Football games and sitcoms established this cultural phenomenon in the 1980s and early 1990s, with widely watched Super Bowl games and series finales like M*A*S*H and Cheers, but it all began with Nixon and Kennedy. (The 2015 Super Bowl, a match-up between New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, drew the largest television audience ever recorded in the United States—with more than 115 million viewers. That’s the equivalent of about 36 percent of the overall population, putting the game’s audience as a percentage of the total population on par with that of the presidential debate on September 26, 1960.)
For all of the interest the debate generated, it was widely received as a mild—even boring—broadcast. Not only did candidates avoid a “verbal slugfest,” as one Chicago newspaper put it at the time, but they were altogether humorless.
The New York Times called the event “refreshing in its own slightly stodgy way,” and others praised it in more glowing terms, but not everyone was dazzled. In newspaper editorials around the country, people complained of the broadcast as “bad television,” “stiff and formalized,” and all around “not great”—ironically, given its promotion as the Great Debate.
Judging by newspaper coverage at the time, there was as much interest in how the candidates performed as there was with what the debate portended for the future of American politics. In one sprawling 1960 essay, published in the Times the day before Nixon and Kennedy took the stage, the writer and former White House aide Emmet John Hughes imagined two starkly different futures—one in which television would help democracy flourish and the other in which television would severely debase the nation’s political culture.
Optimists saw the potential for a visual banquet that would bring real intimacy between candidates and voters; open the dialogue between political parties; foster political engagement among a better-informed citizenry; and ultimately create a more purposeful relationship between the people and their representative government.
Pessimists saw a future in which the substance of political discourse would be cheapened dramatically, and a world in which TV would displace more substantive forms of political communication; stoke partisan disputes; and increasingly sloganize and oversimplify the actual complexities of governing.
The most dangerous thing about television’s growing influence in the political sphere, critics warned, was the possibility that it could lend a false air of authenticity to a candidate’s posturing. Broadcast media as a legitimizing force might, for instance, create the illusion that a candidate is more qualified than he really is. It is surreal now to revisit those early critiques of televised politics from the 1960s, and to reconsider 20th-century worries through the lens of a 21st-century Trump campaign.
“Television exalts the factor of personality,” Hughes wrote. “It invites, even demands, appeal to emotion rather than intellect. It commercializes, savagely hammering political discourses into capsule banalities to fit one-minute, thirty-second, ten-second ‘spots.’” In 1952, presidential candidates bought ads that ran five minutes long, according to Newton Minow and Craig LaMay’s 2008 book, Inside the Presidential Debates. By 1964, the longest spots ran 60 seconds.
Just as technology critics feared it would, television helped corporatize American politics. It transformed the conventions into broadcast spectacles. It drove up the cost of campaigning and created the need for a new roster of advisors for candidates—bookers, handlers, media experts, and image consultants who then doubled as additional buffers between the candidate and the public.
Television had the potential, to make the Democratic process “more true and profound,” but could such a shift ever really take place? In one of the most resonant portions of Hughes’s essay, he attempts to answer this question:
If [television] drives politics toward theatrics, so that the number of politicians who imagine themselves entertainers swells to match the number of entertainers who imagine themselves politicians; if it ruthlessly practises a kind of intellectual payola that rewards the man who can reduce the most complex issue to the silliest simplification; if it effectively invites a whole people to foreswear the labor of reading for the ease of gaping ... If the pungent slogan asserts such sovereignty that disarmament is discussed on the level of deodorants; if all impulses conspire to glut the channels with what sells rather than with what matters; if, by all these lapses and deceits, a whole people lets itself become mentally trapped in a suffocating kind of isolation booth from which no sound can be heard but the voice of the huckster—the answer will be no.
It is clear that, in 2016, Trump embodies Hughes’s worst fears about what television would engender in presidential politics. Trump is an entertainer-turned-politician who blurs the issues rather than clarifying them, a fear monger who is as adept at exaggeration as he is antagonistic to nuance. Television alone is not responsible for Trump—he’s responsible for himself—but it did help him along the way.
Trump rose to fame in the television era—and largely on television, as a reality-TV star—but he is running for president on the other side of yet another technological revolution, in an era that might be described as post-TV.
All of the technological platforms that emerged following basic television—including 24-hour cable news, blogs, social publishing, and internet-connected smartphones—have reinforced the questions that critics like Hughes posed in the first place. Yet there’s a crucial difference: The voice of the politician, huckster or not, is not the only one broadcast by today’s media.
The media is no longer the sole gatekeeper. By several measures, the quality of political discourse—as it plays out on Twitter and Facebook, for example—may be seen as worse than ever, another notch along a continuum of degradation that TV helped promote. And the use of such platforms by candidates is obviously as inauthentic as any political messaging. But there’s power in a citizenry that’s technologically able to talk back—and, more importantly, amongst one another. (Incidentally, before the tweet, there was the telegram: After a 1956 TV speech that cut into regular television programming, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for president, received a telegram from a viewer and apparent Eisenhower supporter that read, “I like Ike and I love Lucy. Drop dead.”)
Tens of millions of Americans are likely to watch Monday’s debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Many more will simultaneously track reaction, in real time, on social media—or opt to “watch” reaction by itself, without watching the debate at all. For half a century now, the American voter has turned to screens—televisions and now smartphones—to form political opinions. But they’re no longer only turning to the candidates or the newspapers to distill these views.
If technology has made the Democratic process any truer than it was in 1960, it’s as a result of the democratization of publishing power wrought by the Internet more than any other force. The American voter is undoubtedly better off with access to modern platforms, including television, but that doesn’t mean Americans escaped the cultural and political damage that so alarmed early TV critics.
Some things, of course, never change. As ever, the burden remains on the electorate to parse authenticity from performance, politics from entertainment, and technological progress from cultural decline.
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