Sunday, October 03, 2004

Abolish Presidential Debates!

Let's all admit the following: There will never again be anything like the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Let's also admit that debate is not the same as discussion.

For some reason, elites (i.e., scholars, intellectuals, media editorial pages) tend to believe that we would all be better off with substantive debates between political candidates. Such debates, the argument tends to run, allow the voting public the opportunity to weigh ideas discussed by the candidates, and allow the candidates themselves to consider policy posititions.

The model, it seems to me, is the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. This is the model to which all political debates aspire: reasoned, eloquent, highly substantive discussions of the important issues of the day. Anyone with the patience and time can mine the speeches given during the Lincoln-Douglas debates and discover there a wealth of nuanced political theory and rhetorical models.

But those debates are, on one level, the apex of our national experience with political debates. Even if the level of skill, nuance, and intelligence on display there were not confined (as I believe they are) to those particular debates--that is, assuming that worthwhile political debate is a perennial possibility rather than an occasional phenomenon--televizing debates obviates the opportunity to display such excellence. I'm not stating anything revolutionary when I say that television makes the "show," and not the substance, the centerpiece of the debate.

This has been true since the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Those who heard the debate on the radio said Nixon won. Those who saw Nixon grimace and sweat on camera thought Kennedy won. Carter-Reagan: reviews by the commentariat crowned Carter the winner. But the public? In a swoon over a gentle chuckle, a grandfatherly smile, and "There you go again."

The pity of this is that, with a candidate who, for example, mangles syntax (something Dwight Eisenhower famously did, though no one every questioned his intelligence or political acumen), the debate is not won or lost on substance (an aside: anyone else think that Bush is a) nervous in front of crowds, and b) overly-scripted? Check out this interview (click on "video")--two people (and a cameraman), no crowds, no script).

But how could it be won on substance? What startling new revelation occurs during a debate? How much that we did not know or could not know came out into the open during Thursday's debate beween Bush and Kerry?

Debates are a facade of substance, parading in the guise of discussion. They are pre-scripted (that is, the candidates know what they're going to say), and we can be excused if we think we're clairvoyant (how could anyone not guess at someone's answer--unless, of course, this is the first time you've paid attention to the campaign -- but then, if you haven't been paying attention, why would you tune into a 90 minute debate?). Discussion, on the other hand, is an open exchange of ideas, intended to persuade the other individual that your point is more reasoned, but also open to the idea that you may be incorrect about any number of things.

Such discussions do not happen in our political discourse. Instead, if we're junkies or idealogues, we tune in to hear our guy be right and the other guy be wrong. We declare our candidate the "winner" on substance, but then give the honest answer based on style (did our guy grimace too much? did the other guy sigh? who had the best zinger?). In other words, we leave the debate with no new ideas, only new weapons of attack.

This is good for democracy?


Blogger Matt Peed said...

You're right, Chris. I would want to comment on this one. Assuming that is, that this wasn't just a devil's advocate kind of post.

There's one flaw in your argument, as I see it. You assume that picking the right president should be all about the substance of policy, not who's the most polished on TV. That was probably true up until about 1960. This is a media-driven age, however, and one of the substantive tasks a modern president must do is use the media to communicate effectively. This is important to explain and implement policy, but especially in an age of global media, is a task important in itself. The president will be responsible for using the media in a host of efforts that will cumulatively affect national unity, morale, and attitude, as well as international hostility or enthusiasm. You can still find people griping about Bush's choice of "crusade" as a description of his campaign against terror, for example. People are led by images of their president in ways unheard of in 1858. They are encouraged by their Counselor-in-Chief, inspired by the Bully Pulpit, and rallied by prime-time addresses. The personality of the candidate is thus both a substantive issue deserving illumination, and an important factor in determining whether other policies will be effectively implemented. In short, whether a candidate is a leader is as important as the direction in which he intends to lead. And today, people are led by television images.

Besides that, I do think you learn something from the debates. I'll never forget hearing Bush's answers to policy questions in the 2000 debates. They had a certain familiar ring to them. I knew exactly where he was coming from, having myself been called on in front of class without having done the reading. I learned, at least, that he's only an average B.S.-er.

October 4, 2004 at 1:38 AM  
Blogger Matt Peed said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

October 4, 2004 at 2:01 AM  
Blogger Matt Peed said...

One more thing...

Much of what we do in a democracy is not actually about formulating the best policy, but about maintaining democratic legitimacy. Many would agree that returning control over the Senate to state legislatures would result in better statesmen. Some might also suggest that introducing knowledge requirements for voting would result in a more informed electorate. But few would argue that these formerly uniformly-endorsed policies could endure in an age as democratized and scrutinized as our CNN and blog-filled world. I suspect that something like that is in effect with the debates. Even if everyone knows they are ineffective at promoting wise decisions and good policy, can you really imagine a true political contest for the highest office in the land without them? I feel like our media-driven democracy needs the cathartic event of two candidates going at it, each trying their hardest to feel our pain. It infuses our democracy with a shot of power and pride to see two candidates grovel face-to-face for our vote.

October 4, 2004 at 2:04 AM  
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