Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates
The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.
I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.
Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.
As usual, the commission’s debate rules are limiting enough to be called stringent. Open Debates, a non-profit advocacy that wants the debates released from the clutches of the Democrats and Republicans, complains of how “dreary” the events have become, comparing them at their worst to a joint press conference. In the first debate, each topic segment will run 15 minutes (there will be three “economy” segments). Moderator Jim Lehrer will begin each topic set with a question that the candidates get two minutes to answer, and at evening’s end both contestants will get two minutes for a closing statement.
Veteran debate moderator Gwen Ifill notes in the Washington Post that the debates don’t have much of an effect on the presidential election. “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates,” she writes. Nor does anyone say much of enduring consequence, as Time magazine inadvertently showed with a recent video slideshow of “Top 10 Memorable Debate Moments.” None of the moments cited – Ford’s gaffe, Quayle’s Kennedy pandering, Gore’s body language, etc. – really changed anything.
Yet the debates still play a vital role in what anthropologist James R. McLeod liked to call the “ritual sociodrama” of the presidential campaign. During the primaries, candidates avoid acting presidential as they spew “powerful rhetoric of unity, disunity, order, anarchy, and chaos.” They don’t just throw mud – they irrigate and excavate whole new mud fields and construct new mud-delivery systems for the annihilation of their opponents in televised events that are called debates but more resemble rhetorical food fights. To pinch another of McLeod’s slick phrases, the high-sticking and peak emotion of the primaries render the nation “disarticulated politically.”
Then come the nominating conventions of the major parties, which exist nowadays mostly to rubber-stamp the primary rumbles. The conventions reduce the noise of the Republican and Democratic choruses to two soloists, which theoretically frees them to isolate their verbal firepower on each other. But by the time the debates arrive, the candidates generally refrain from howling at their opponent. Instead, they seek to appear more measured, more statesmanlike, more presidential. They take advantage of the conflict-averse debate rules to croon easy-listening music past one another and into the ears of the television audience. For them, the debates are twinned press conferences and twinned infomercials.
Whether by design or accident, the presidential debates commence the “reintegration” (a last hat-tip to McLeod) of the national political psyche. Rhetoric runs cooler as the parties creep toward the center. Although the television networks, newspapers and the Web obsess about what the two candidates say in the debates, the battle is largely visual, according to academics Mark Goodman, Mark Gring and Brian Anderson, co-authors of a 2007 paper about the visual style of “town hall” presidential debates. The debates are as much about what you don’t see as what you do. Goodman, Gring and Anderson write:
Naturally, campaign staffs and the growing ranks of for-hire media consultants have tried to maximize the candidate’s visual impression by: avoiding unconventional clothing and hairstyles; training the candidate to address camera lenses as well as the audience; featuring the candidate’s family in campaign appearances; and a host of other now-standard considerations. Understandably, the candidate’s visible actions in debates, that is, his or her non-verbal style, has become ever more vital in determining quality of performance in those important encounters.
None of these stylistic moves are designed to deepen the voters’ political understanding or convey anything substantive about the candidates’ characters and values, add the authors. Newscasts rely on similar visual tricks to hold and mold audiences, making TV anchors reluctant to critique the visual hocus-pocus of the debates. If Goodman, Gring and Anderson are right – and I think they are – the best, and in many ways the intended, way to watch the presidential debates is with the sound off.
The political reintegration continues on election night, as the network anchors deliberately soothe viewers and lend legitimacy to the vote-taking and -counting process. “Winners are larger than life heroes, losers are gallant and noble; democracy works in the United States as it does nowhere else in the world,” write Marc Howard Ross and Richard Joslyn about the election night telecast in a Winter 1988 paper in Polity. “Network commentators not only tell us who won and lost different contests, but also offer potent messages about political conflict, system legitimacy, regime norms, and citizen roles.”
The bunting-mad spectacle of the January inauguration seals the deal as solid as any Westminster Abbey coronation. At the risk of exhausting your anthropological patience, our election rituals cool even the hottest contests. By the end of the 1968, 1972, 1980 and 2004 election cycles, the nation seemed prepared to go to war with itself over the presidential election. But by Inauguration Day, the rituals have persuaded most – even the opposition – that the man taking the oath has a legitimate claim to the presidency. But disturb the ritual’s continuity – I’m thinking here of the Bush-Gore election interruptus in 2000 – and the magic vaporizes. A dozen years later Democrats are still howling about how Bush and the Supreme Court stole that election.
Part theatrical performance, part quiz show, part fencing match, part transition ceremony, the words and gestures of the 2012 debates will be picked over with tweezers by the TV commentariat as soon as the candidates’ microphones go dead. They’ll struggle to locate the momentum and import in the 90 minutes just passed, they’ll scrutinize the gaffes and they’ll even rate the moderator. Like all widely observed rituals and ceremonies – baptisms, weddings, funerals, the World Cup – the presidential debates open themselves to mockery. But the public craving for pageants and contests will not be stilled by our contempt and sarcasm. We can crack the debates’ code, but we can’t rewrite it.
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PHOTO: U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) (L) and Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) (R) interact during their presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn