10/10/2012 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

The Not-So-Great Debates

NFL injuries and baseball playoffs are probably occupying more of your time than the presidential "debates."

If so, you're not alone.

For one thing these debates aren't true debates. They're so stiff, scripted and television-stuffy that they're more like a series of bullet-point campaign promises, intermingled with perhaps-scornful prewritten zingers, that you'd be better off watching an excerpt of highlights of the debate on YouTube, and hoping for someone's blooper reel.

But you're not likely to see bloopers. Everything is so studied that the only reason that they're called debates is that we haven't yet invented a word for the sight of two candidates standing and droning on before the camera trying to engage an audience beyond the closed circle of journalists, policy wonks, pollsters and everyone else who covers the election to the exclusion of real life.

Real life: You know, things like NFL injuries and the coming baseball playoffs. Not to mention civil war in Syria, unemployment in Europe and abroad, unrest in Mali and many other crises that are too numerous to mention and too unsettling to be part of a presidential platform trying to convince swing voters they should swing one way over another.

It isn't so much that this race, like all too many presidential campaigns, is so painfully drawn out -- this one seemed to have begun two years ago -- although you would not be mistaken in thinking it began the day President Obama won the last election.

It isn't so much that most of the viewers are already decided, and that those who view the debates are either mistaken in thinking they're doing their civic duty in watching (they'd do better to be working on voter registration) or in thinking they're going to see something spontaneous. Hardly likely.

It isn't so much that the debates should be more than they are, but they are less than they ought to be, even in an age of lessened expectations regarding politics and political involvement. These debates are sideshows being given the main stage, though they're irrelevant to what most voters have already decided to do on election day. If they do anything important on election day, such as actually vote.

It's a wonder that the debates are still part of the campaign season, in their current non-debate format. Especially since we live in an era when most people want to be spoken to as adults, in a transparent manner.

But politics exist in their own out-of-time world. And the television "news" departments (I put quotation marks around the word because we all know that TV news is only news when it's a story that's visual, and brief, and concerns scandal and such, not insight and analysis), these departments are concerned with protecting whatever veneer of respectability and self-importance they still possess. When they're not racing for ratings covering scandal and such.

It's a shame, really. Because everyone would love to see something unscripted and fresh and spontaneous. But that's not going to happen.

It just shows that you can't count on politics to gauge the tenor of the times. In Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future which I wrote with Roy H. Williams and which is out this week, we explore shifts in society every 40 years, as we move from an individualistic, egocentric "me" age to a more civic-minded "we" era.

We're now in a "we" cycle, and things that are important to us: transparency, truth-telling, the common good, are rarely to be seen in politics. We don't believe you can predict politics, and that the swings of social cycles can't affect politics.

After all, politics is always about "me" even if it is supposed to be about "us." But then, politicians have been the same since the founding of the Athenian democracy. Even shifting social cycles can't change that.