The Debate Circus

Dark suits are in this year.

Tomorrow night, at 9:00 Eastern Time, President Obama and Governor Romney will have their first of three debates. It will be broadcast live on every major news network with an estimated viewing audience of over 50 million people. (Almost as many as read this blog!)

The word “debate” conjures up thoughts of democracy in action, of competing ideas battling for the right to govern. We imagine, perhaps, it is a way of deciding who’s wiser, who is more fit to lead our nation.

Yet a glance behind the curtain reveals the Presidential debates are nothing of the kind, and indeed, no longer can be.

The winner of a debate is not the one with better ideas, but the one who sounds better saying them. Look at the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate of 1960, where Nixon “lost” in part because he seemed pale, sweaty, and nervous in contrast to Kennedy’s calm affability. (Never mind that Nixon had just gotten out of the hospital.) Or look at Al Gore’s debate with Bush in 2000, where his repeated sighs made him appear condescending. Or John McCain, who wandered the stage in the 2008 “town hall” debate, making himself look like a confused old man.

Of course none of these perceptions had much to do with reality, but in national politics, perception is everything. Partly this is just human nature – we are, after all, emotional creatures – but the national stage of today’s elections makes the problem ten times worse. Every misstep is recorded and replayed literally hundreds of times. Every gesture, every phrase, is endlessly analyzed. Words matter more than ideas. Americans like a “progressive tax” but hate “redistribution of wealth,” even though the former is an example of the latter.

I believe that President Obama and Governor Romney are both very smart people, and that they have both thought long and hard about the real issues. But this unforgiving election allows for few mistakes and even less genuine dialogue. And so they spend hours with debate coaches, learning how to make their ideas more palatable, their sound bites snappier, their body language more confident.

Because even though none of that matters, that’s how people will judge them.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of Americans do not change who they’ll vote for after watching the debates, and I tend to think that’s a good thing. Of course we should be open-minded and willing to change. Just not because of pageantry like this.

I do plan on watching all the debates. They’re high drama, they’re history in the making, and the few minds they change could swing the election. I just don’t want to mistake them for anything other than the circus they are.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh – is there anything substantial to be learned from watching these events? Do you plan to tune in yourself?

5 responses to “The Debate Circus

  1. I agree with you. The debates, and in fact most interactions with the candidates are nothing more than a well choreographed circus for our amusement. No one has actual positions anymore, both candidates are trying to “capture” certain demographics with each of their statement.

    No concrete solutions to problems are proposed, because then those solutions could be picked apart and used against them in out of context political advertising. So all we get to hear are generic phrases like “putting Americans back to work”, “bringing jobs home”, and “securing our nation’s future.”

    I’ve become disgusted with the two party system in place in America. I would much rather have multiple smaller parties that stood for concrete principles and could then form coalitions in congress once elected. At least then if I vote for a candidate I would actually know what I’m voting for.
    Also,Term limits are needed to prevent congressmen and senators from always working towards re-election instead of, actually attempting to pass needed legislation without thinking about how it would affect their chances in the upcoming election cycle..

    Sorry for the rant.

    • I’m not quite so cynical as to think the candidates have no real positions, but I agree that they face strong incentives not to get specific about what those positions are. They’re also forced to choreograph their events because any imperfection gets picked apart. Americans want leaders who are “real,” but when a candidate actually lets down his guard, they tear him apart.

      I don’t have a strong opinion on the two-party system vs. more, smaller parties, but I do think election finance is in dire need of reform. The sheer quantity of anonymous cash that a single private citizen can pump into a campaign is just breathtaking, even compared to four years ago.

      Thanks for the comment, Zeev. 🙂 Good to hear from you as always.

  2. I actually agree quite a bit with Zeev. America’s current dual party system just doesn’t work with the spirit of democracy very well any more. It’s nearly impossible to evaluate what president is the right one for the country, and so most of the election process has become meaningless. Also, as brilliantly designed as this country’s first laws and principles were, they rely on the people being intelligent, and also being able to think independently. This is one of my primary concerns for the future of america-lack of free thought. Because although there are a huge lists of problems that plague america, this is one of the top 5 that should take priority for being fixed.
    Well, that’s enough nerd talk for now. Not planning on watching the debates because I am only 14 and can’t vote anyway, and I can’t influence anyone else to vote for one candidate or the other very much anyway, so I don’t see a point.

    • Yeah, I think a lot of people believe that as long as they vote, they’re doing their part for democracy. In my opinion, uninformed voting is worse than not voting at all. The shorter our attention spans get, the more the whole system breaks down.

      As for watching the debates – don’t forget that you’ll be eligible to vote at the end of the next Presidential term, so anything you glean from the debates now could give you valuable context for understanding what you see in the future. 🙂 Though the debates may not mean much in the way of substance, they do matter in a political sense. Just a thought – it’s up to you, of course.

      • I’ll think what I’ll do instead is learn what each president has actually done and then use that to inform my voting, and concern myself with evidence and arguments that I can find from each candidate next term. However, as you noted in the post, the debates themselves don’t actually seem to serve much of a purpose.

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