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The Democratic Debates: The Paradox of Choice

The recent Democratic debates by 20 would-be presidents provided a clear example of why democracy is great. There certainly were plenty of candidates to choose from. But that very variety also demonstrated a problem caused by so many choices: confusion and frustration.

For many Americans, it was difficult to watch, two sessions of 10 candidates each all trying to make points, get air time, and end up with that one memorable line that would help boost them in the polls and encourage supporters to contribute. All of that is essential if they are to be eligible for the next round of debates.

Psychologists will tell you that having too many options to choose from can make you question your ultimate decision. Did I make the right choice? After all, deciding for whom to vote for President of the United States is a critically important decision, and you don’t want to get it wrong. Especially in this election.

So, there they were on stage: 20 brands (candidates) over two nights each vying for attention.

Twenty is a lot—a lot of faces, voices, ties, pantsuits, and ideas not only to keep straight but to appraise. It was like reading a menu with too many entrees, shopping in a department store with too many levels and aisles, or going to a theme park boasting too many rides.

To make matters worse, CNN controlled the narrative. They decided which “choice” (candidate) to exhibit at any given time. As the split-screen panned back and forth, and as the moderators’ questions focused on one person or another, the consumer, overwhelmed by detail, could be excused for feeling ambivalent and saying, “What the hell?”

Moments of elation, amusement, or righteous outrage felt by the viewer cannot offset the frustration that lingers long after they end.

Aware of this, CNN reporter Frida Ghitis said this about the third debate: “In a format that was endlessly frustrating, with so many candidates on stage that moderators had to cut them off just when you wanted to hear more, Democrats showed voters that they bring a host of different, well-thought-out ideas for them to choose from.”

As if the nitpicking, backstabbing, and one-upmanship weren’t enough to vex viewers, there was also the problem inherent in liking at least one thing about each of the candidates, while disliking something else.

In other words, it was hard to settle on one candidate in the face of so much overlap, attraction, and…even repulsion.

It’s likely that some viewers’ opinions were shaped by a candidate’s appearance (after all, debates are a form of entertainment) rather than his or her agenda, or vice versa. Fashion-conscious viewers were probably wowed by Tulsi Gabbard’s white suit, while far left Democrats might have wondered why the color red (as in Republican) was so prominent in the men’s ties and the women’s blazers.

In sum, there were too many visual, aural, and conceptual signs to process.

The counter-theory of social scientist R. Veenhoven, who thinks profuse choice increases the quality of life in capitalism, does not seem applicable here. The Democratic party is wracked by many problems, not least of which is forcing the truly qualified candidates to work harder than necessary to be heard over the second-raters. But then, that is democracy.

Eventually, the process will winnow down to one nominee. Let’s hope this person finds time to recoup his or her energy before taking on the incumbent, who will not have wasted a single calorie fighting for the nomination. After all, it doesn’t take many calories for your chubby fingers to type out snide and nasty tweets.

That’s one advantage for Trump. A second one: His base will not have been wearied by finding their way clear of the paradox of choice.

On November 3, 2020, this peculiar feature of an advanced culture—this idea that democracy’s citizens are damaged rather than liberated too many choices—will not pose an obstacle to voters, because the choices will be crystal clear.

Thus, Democrats must choose a candidate who can win without depending on the paradox of choice to weaken the resolve of anyone on the other side. Because on that election day, the choice will be between two people, and the best choice for our nation should be obvious.

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