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Monday, October 15, 2012

Presidential Debates

Just weeks before the 2012 elections in the U.S., the New York Times observed, “In 1960, John F. Kennedy was trailing Richard Nixon as they stepped into the crucible of the first nationally televised debate. While Kennedy soared, Nixon stumbled and never recovered. Network television played a definitive role, but those were very different times. There were three networks, not 500 channels, and the consumer Internet was still very much on the drawing board of the future. Half a century later, televised debates remain relevant, but the ritual is up against an always-on informational stream that surges with political messages.”
Indeed, $2.5 billion was being spent on the U.S. presidential election alone. It could even be said that the political conventions and the debates themselves had become pre-arranged “political messages” and thus part of the advertising.

In the second presidential debate of 2012, for example,  the candidates were primarily oriented to covering all their memorized talking points rather than answering questions posed by the voters invited for that very purpose as part of the "town hall" format. As it happened, the candidates talked so much that very few of the people's questions were asked. All that talk might have been justified had there been a focused and sustained back-and-forth limited to contending counter-arguments to specific points.

I was stunned at how rarely "debating" was even attempted. The candidates even dismissed the moderator when she tried to focus the "debate" by returning the particular candidate to the question that had been asked by the audience. The candidates' lack of respect for the moderator and the people asking the questions was displayed by the ease and quickness with which the candidates deviated in favor of their own talking points. It was as though the "debate" was a series of control battles between a candidate and the moderator. This indicates that insufficient direction was enforced by the moderator.

I was also stunned at the extent to which both candidates presumed that their role in the debate  included being able to overrule the moderate and run it as if they were not subject to the rules. Making matters worse, at a few points the moderator actually moved on to a new question and topic when the candidates had begun to focus on specific points and counter-points in a real back and forth. Even the moderator did not understand fundamentally what a debate is.

To take one example of the dysfunction in the debate, a voter asked Obama what he had accomplished in office that impacts the voter's ability to afford ordinary things needed in life, like food. Obama mentioned killing Bin Laden even though no economic link is salient between that killing and the price of bread. It was instead an opportunity for Obama to get out all of his talking points on a more general topic. Romney replied to particular points made by Obama on his accomplishments in office, but here too the focus on the economic aspect of the voter's question was insufficient. Then Obama deviated even from discussing his own record to criticize Romney's, which was not within the scope of the question. I believe the moderator went to a new question rather than enforce compliance with the original question and direct Obama to reply to one of Romney's specific counter-points on Obama's economic accomplishments in office. From my vantage-point, it was like looking at an arrangement severely out of balance and yet seemingly incapable of self-correction.

Particularly troubling to me was the lack of respect shown by the candidates for the invited voters with respect to their questions, and for the moderator with respect to her authority. When a voter asked who in the State Department had decided to reduce security in the U.S. embassy in Libya prior to the attack that killed the ambassador, neither Obama nor Romney came close to providing an answer. Instead, the candidates sparred over Obama's statements after the attack. This example also illustrates another way in which the moderator fell short.

Questions about why Obama thought at first that the attack was due to protests over a video produced in California are not as important as questions concerning Obama's policies on Iran and Syria, for example. Looking back at the presidential debates in the 2000 race would probably show too much attention on controversies that are only of the time; had there been more substantive debate in foreign policy, voters might have been better able to anticipate Bush's eventual invasion of Iraq. That is to say, a cost of the moderator selecting rather limited controversies because they are hot at the time of the debate is that the voters are deprived of being able to anticipate future policies of the candidates.

My thesis is that the presidential "debate" format and operation are deeply flawed from the standpoint of what it is to debate. Even to deem one candidate as "the winner" is an absurdity if the "debate" does not pass muster in terms of what a debate is. That the media runs with this absurdity anyway indicates just how out of touch we are on what constitutes debate. Just because insiders do not fix the problem does not mean that it cannot be fixed.  

As a possible reform bearing on the operation, the moderator could receive training from debate experts on how to run a debate (with some allowances for the fact that the candidates do not bring in folders of supporting evidence, though maybe doing so would help them to focus). At the very least, the moderator should be able to turn off the microphone of a candidate once he has swerved off  the question on the table or from the last "on point" contention made by the other candidate. The moderator should certainly have that ability when as in the second debate a candidate talks over the moderator in order to ignore the moderator's decision. "But I just need to respond to . . ." should trigger the moderator into "mic-cut" mode.

 In short, a debate is characterized by a true back and forth that is focused and sustained (i.e., contained) on particular points oriented to a question. A debate is not “all over the map," where the candidates bounce around even within a given topic, like two hyperactive boys unable to concentrate (and with a moderator as though heavily sedated or impotent). It is therefore worth asking whether the presidential (and VP) debates at least as of 2012 were debates at all, as distinct from two people simply getting their respective messages out in pre-established talking points. Under the circumstances, it is astonishing that the media self-servingly promotes the "debates" as crucial to the outcome of the election.
It is of course in the economic interest of the media and its paid “commentators” or “experts” to populate the airwaves with “the next debate is crucial!” before the next debate. The media could get away with the manipulation were it not for the lack of any self-restraint in the claims. For example, the media claimed in the run-up to the VP debate that that debate would be crucial—perhaps even a game-changer—because Obama had lost the first presidential debate of the general campaign (i.e., after the primary season, or year). That political scientists had reported time and again that voters do not vote for president on the basis of the vice-presidential candidates was apparently missed by the media in its unquenchable thirst for still more viewers.

                                            Americans in "The Federal City" watching a debate in 2012. Civic togetherness?  NYT
Indeed, as the New York Times suggests, even the electoral significance of the presidential debates was being overplayed. The Huffington Post reported that even after his “loss” in the first debate, President Obama continued to show an edge in battleground states. That is to say, the media’s claim in the wake of that debate that once again Romney was in play (vindicating the media’s view that the debates matter!) had been a momentary over-reaction. At the very least, the media was missing the forest for the trees (or branches).
Two contending forces could be pointed to as decisive. The "debates" are not salient in either account. On the one hand, pro-Obama supporters could point to the following as game changers: 1.) Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention answering the Republican criticisms of Obama from the Republican Convention, and 2.) Romney’s leaded closed-door comment that it would not be his job as president to worry about the 47% of Americans who did not owe income taxes in 2011 and thus refuse to take responsibility for their lives (preferring to be dependent on the government) were the game-changing events in the election of 2012. On the other hand, a Romney supporter could point to the following forces: 1.) a general sense among Americans that Obama had caved into Wall Street or been generally weak as president, and 2.) the "pocket-book" (i.e., lack of an economic recovery). Neither of these possible scenerios has the debates playing a prominent role in the the voters' decisions of who to vote for.

The media’s hype on the debates was just that—self-interested manipulation akin to “pay attention to me!” With most of the American electorate having made up their minds before the debates, the post-debate polls showing significant shifts should have been read very skeptically, especially given the limitations of polling (e.g., by state vs. aggregated, “likely voters,” cell phones, no call lists, etc.) and the margins of error, which the media constantly ignore because definitive headlines sell.  
Indeed, the report a week after the vice presidential debate that Obama still held an edge in battleground states was itself an invalid claim, given the margin of error. The Huffington Post used the headline even while stating in the article itself that the finding is within the margin of error and thus spurious! The electorate is nearly blind to the errors and uncertainty in polling, especially in relation to the financial-interest of the media in misusing poll “data.”
Unfortunately, the presumption of truth tends to go with having a microphone and television camera. Reason takes a back seat behind the lights on the stage of a “debate.” The media keeps the electorate on the edge of their chairs for months on end, as if each bend in the road were on a political cliff. You better watch! There might be a crash! It is American Gladiator on steroids, and the masses are content to be spectators to a spectacle. I suspect that the subtle shifts throughout an electorate that constitute the will of the people on election day do not hinge on a series of orchestrated talking-points whether in a convention or “debate.”
Furthermore, the historical trajectory of the presidential debates over fifty years was toward “talking points” even without regard to the moderator’s question, in lieu of a sustained back and forth on a specific point to be debated and only then to be followed after some time by another point of contention in a debate that is moderated. In other words, after fifty years of presidential debates the viewers had no idea how far the spectacle had drifted out to sea. That something is called a debate does not mean that it is a debate. Moreover, just because the media characterizes a given social reality as true or actual does not necessarily mean that it is, particularly when the media’s interest is in play. Truth itself manifested as social reality should be viewed as a problem rather than as a given.
Stepping back finally, my thesis can be read as an indictment of the shift away from the emphasis on electing independent electors to the Electoral College by state, which was intended to serve as a check on excessive democracy. Election campaigns in extended republics (i.e., empire-scale) have so much distance between the candidates and the electorate, given the size of the latter and the extended geography of multiple republics, that democracy can be subject to media manipulation and demagoguery (enabled by the lack of sustained back and forth on specific points of contention in the debates). This is why the delegates in the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 opted for smaller electorates (i.e., in the states) to elect their own electors, who in turn could meet with the candidates and cast more informed ballots without being beholden by their respective electorates to vote for a certain candidate.
Put another way, hundreds of millions of people are necessarily reliant on the media for information on the candidates for empire-wide office. The candidates in turn can essentially market themselves as a brand that can be quite contrived or artificial (e.g., the McCain campaign’s efforts to give us a certain view of Sarah Palin even as the campaign knew she was not qualified to be president).
My analysis in this essay is essentially geared to pointing to the expected decadence in electing an empire-level office directly. Jose Barroso, president of the E.U. Commission, was at the time proposing that his office be popularly elected by citizens of the E.U., and thus he was unwittingly subjecting the E.U. to the same sort of flaw. At root, Barroso was misconstruing the nature of the E.U. as a federal empire-level/scale union in applying that which is well-suited to the level of the E.U.'s republics.
As an alternative to the media spectacle that is the U.S. presidential election, Americans might consider reforms that would emphasize and protect the electors in the Electoral College, or replacing it with a combination of state officials and members of Congress (who are themselves elected and thus based in democracy!) to meet in order to choose the president. Both means are consistent with historical federal theory, whereas the direct election route is not. In other words, the reductionism to polls and talking points is to be expected; it confirms the judgment of the majority of the delegates who were at the federal convention in 1787. In short, they understood what the United States were much better than the modern electorate and officials do today. This is the basic problem facing the American polity, in my view.
If I am correct, we as a people have lost touch with what a federal, empire-level/scale union is, and so we do not even realize when we have gone far off course. For instance, we do not understand the particular risk that goes with consolidation at the federal level. We do not understand that what works electorally at the state level may not work in the context of a combination of such republics; a step-wise leap is involved, with qualitative as well as  quantitative differences. It is as though we were on a ship without a rudder, and yet we presume we must be on course so we keep going ahead. We continue with the status quo, happily going through the electoral-season rituals as though we were a dead beetle still moving along—the legs still twitching. It is indeed a horrible spectacle in the light of day, even if everything seems just dandy to the vast majority of the electorate that is to select the next president. Sadly yet tellingly, none of this is subject to debate.

David Carr, “TV Debates That Sell More Than Just Drama,” The New York Times, October 15, 2012.

Mark Blumenthal, “2012 Polls Continue to Show Close Race Nationwide, Obama Edge in Battleground States,” The Huffington Post, October 15, 2012.