Pence's Fly: Why did buzz-worthy debate crashers fly more than debaters did?

By Anvi Joshi ('21)


A fly that landed on former Vice President Pence's head made quite the "buzz" at the 2020 Vice Presidential Debates. Courtesy of the New York Times

Looking back at the Vice Presidential Debate, viewers undoubtedly remember the tense conversations on the coronavirus, Senator Kamala Harris’ disapproving looks, and both candidates dodging dangerous questions… Or they remember what most people were focused on–the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head halfway through the debate, and then proceeded to sit there for two minutes and three seconds.


At the time, those watching were barely paying attention to Mike Pence’s speech supporting the police in the face of recent Black Lives Matter protests. Instead, they tuned in on the little black spot on the bright white of Pence’s hair. Major news publications flooded in with articles about the fly, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR. On Twitter, multiple fake fly accounts grew wings. Memes pervaded social media for days.


This is not the first time that a winged debate crasher has generated more buzz. Pun intended.


Hillary Clinton had her own ‘fly’ moment, according to the New York Post, when she was approached by a winged perpetrator in the 2016 second presidential debate. The fly sat “smack in the middle of her eyes”, and she continued talking, unaffected.


Even Mayor Mike Bloomberg was accosted by a fly as early as August 2020.


“I would vote for the fly on Mike Bloomberg’s face,” one Twitter user wrote at the time.


The trend of flying insects can be explained by poor ventilation and open doors, but the American people’s response? That is a bit more interesting.


Specifically, the moment the fly landed, Mike Pence stated “[T]he family of Breonna Taylor has our sympathies. But I trust our justice system. This presumption that you hear from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist, and as Joe Biden said, he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities, it's a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement."


Despite Pence stating his views on a heavily controversial, relevant, and serious issue, most people focused on the fly. Black Lives Matter protests ran through the media for several news cycles both before and after the debate, so why did no one pay attention to what Pence said? Especially when he was denouncing the racial-profiling many black men and women have experienced first-hand?


Senior Drew Shah says, “I think it is because the general trend in modern media is that we are… hyper-fixated on what we find as either entertaining or… helps us maintain our general comfort level. And a lot of times, especially lately, politicians… are getting away with more and more because we do not really want to see the bad that's going on, so it stands to reason that we would want to focus on...a fly rather than what this person is actually saying.”


Debates have never been a popular, interactive watch because, as Shah mentioned, they are not interesting. In fact, according to CNN Business, one of the highest watched debates in U.S history, the first debate between President Donald Trump and current President-Elect Joe Biden, reached a potential of more than 73 million views on account of it being “the worst debate in modern American history” and people wanting to tune in “to see what the fuss was about.”


Vice-presidential debates are also generally less viewed than Presidential debates. So, most people watching and noticing a fly makes some sense. Humans tend to resort to escapism in order to cope with their reality. The American public is no exception, and presumed political fatigue and the Covid-19 crisis probably does not help matters.


Shah said, “I think the fly works as a perfect scapegoat. Because it is suddenly something that is not an issue, something that is clean, something that is easy, something that doesn't deal with the stickiness of actually getting your hands dirty… It is absolutely a unifier but in the worst possible way.”


There is nothing wrong with laughing at a fly on Mike Pence, but it does make you wonder if the escapism Americans gained meant they lost anything. Widespread disenfranchisement and fatigue could have played a role in how the public reacted–or maybe it just was a much-needed laugh in the time of crisis.


After all, if you cannot do anything about the world, it is pretty fly to laugh at it.

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