Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Televised Political Debates in Postmodern US

On Dec 12, 2011, something astonishing was seen on American television: not a UFO, not the Loch Ness monster, not Bigfoot, but an actual political debate between presidential candidates, the first one broadcast in decades in that country. Granted, the debaters, Gingrich and Hunstman, agreed on virtually every issue, so the event wasn’t a debate in content so much as in format. And granted, the debate was shown on C-SPAN and even though it’s on YouTube as well, relatively few Americans will view this debate and so discover the difference between an actual political debate and a press conference disguised as one. Still, this Lincoln-Douglas format in which--of all things!--the moderator hardly speaks at all, there are no commercials, and the debaters speak for long periods of time with no time limits or sound bytes was miraculous to behold--not because this type of event is revelatory, but because it was held in the postmodern US.

If Gingrich wins the nomination and Obama is forced to have several of these Lincoln-Douglas style debates with him, shutting out the journalist moderators as the irrelevancies that they are, those debates might be harbingers of an apocalypse in 2012 or perhaps bizarre manifestations of an approaching techno singularity. At any rate, if this format is used by presidential candidates who actually disagree on most issues and so, well, debate, and the debate is broadcast on American television, where will the American news anchors and earlier candidates hide from the pitchforks and flaming torches carried by the embarrassed masses, who will have then realized that they’d been for so long infantilized by their political process?

A much more likely scenario is that this debate format will be discredited due to a failure to distinguish between the format and the participants: the Gingrich-Hunstman debate was boring because they agreed on most issues, but this lack of excitement may be wrongly blamed on the unmoderated format itself. At least two factors conspire to make this the more likely outcome. First, the television networks are likely pressured to hold out the overly-moderated format as the price for broadcasting the event, since they profit most by selling infotainment, which requires that their news anchors be stars with gigantic egos that must be regularly fed with the spotlight or the anchors’ oversized heads will explode. Second, most presidential candidates don’t want to be forced to publicly demonstrate whether they possess substantive knowledge of foreign and domestic affairs, because a stealth oligarchy attracts lower-quality politicians, as befits their role as figureheads or as double agents of private industry.

UPDATE, Feb 29, 2012:
The Republican candidates have since had over a dozen more televised “debates”--so many in fact that scores of media pundits have protested that they’ve begun to suffer from debate fatigue. Meanwhile, others have pointed out that the “debates” have served the fine purpose of winnowing the field as each anti-Romney figure has collapsed under the spotlight. Perry in particular seems to have difficulty stringing together a coherent sentence, and so he fell in the polls largely because of his poor debate performances. Indeed, if a voter is interested in peaking beyond the fa├žade of talking points, scripted photo ops, and market researched speeches behind which each politician hides, even the paltry intellectual exchanges in the televised pseudo debates are causes for cheer. For example, as the pundits interpret a recent CNN debate, Romney managed to make Santorum look like a Washington insider when Santorum erred by trying to explain his voting record using political jargon. The politician’s slightest slip-up is all that’s needed to hurt him or her in these “debates”, because their format does so little to uncover what the politicians really think about anything. True, as candidates have left the field so that only four now remain, more time has been left in the “debates” for interaction between the relevant speakers. Still, the moderators speak far too much, which is to say that they continue to speak at all after explaining the rules.

The deeper problem, though, isn’t just the time constraint or even the moderator’s egomaniacal interference. What makes the debates almost entirely useless is the nonphilosophical level of the questions put to the politicians. The questions and topics for discussion in the so-called debates are almost always just the journalist’s prosaic inquiries into surface political issues, which they undertake in press conferences and which each competent politician learns to answer using memorized talking points. You’d gain orders of magnitude more important information about a candidate’s position were the debate to feature philosophical interrogation instead, that is, a series of questions about the candidate’s political philosophy. 

In one of the “debates,” Wolf Blitzer--of all people--came closest to making a philosophical breakthrough in his ethical question to Ron Paul about whether Paul would leave a sick person to die if she couldn’t afford her medicine. To Paul’s embarrassment, the so-called conservative audience shouted that yes she should be left to die, and Paul was forced to back-peddle and appeal to the generosity of private charitable institutions. But the philosophical issue remains, which of course Blitzer lacked the time and the sophistication to pursue, the issue being whether Paul’s libertarian principles entail social Darwinism. 

Or take the example above, about Santorum’s convoluted defense of his compromises as a “team player” in the Senate. The consensus interpretation of the exchange was that Santorum suffered from being made to look like an elitist insider, whereas he wants to project the image of a renegade who will challenge corrupt Washington. Given that on TV a political debate must be structured around a press conference, all it would have taken is a handful of words on the moderator’s part to get to the esoteric truth that’s accepted by virtually all cynical, savvy journalists and politicians. Those precious words are: “Who are the real insiders in American politics, the congressmen and women or the wealthy businesspeople who finance the political campaigns and enjoy special access to the government through their highly-paid lobbyists?” How could Romney have benefited from Santorum’s appearance as an insider, when the wealthy financier Romney is another kind of consummate insider? This leads to the question of whether the US is currently more oligarchic than democratic. But even though these deeper questions are in the public mind, at least on the so-called American left, as evidenced by their pride-of-place on the Daily Show, such deeper issues could never conceivably be broached in a political debate on mainstream US television. Nothing would humiliate an American political candidate and enlighten the public more about their government than the candidate’s participation in an examination of his or her political philosophy. If only these televised debates ever got to the bottom of Santorum’s preference for theocracy or Romney’s attitude towards the prospect of plutocracy, the Republican Party would be exposed like never before. 
Of course, the same goes for the Democrats: the very first question that should be posed to Obama in his televised debate with the Republican nominee is why he appointed Robert Rubin-style deregulators as his economic advisors who personally helped corrupt the banking sector under Clinton and Bush, which exacerbated the real estate market collapse. The likely answer is that Obama wanted to retain the economic status quo, even with the financial crisis well under way, because as a postmodern liberal Obama lacks confidence in any philosophical or religious belief whatsoever and is thus stripped of the courage and stamina needed to confront the American power elite, that is, the plutocrats themselves in the upper reaches of what the Occupy movement calls the one percent. But if Obama didn’t want to take on the issue of genuine financial reform, if only because the resistance from the Republicans would have been too strong and no great political change is possible anymore in the US, his campaign rhetoric that swept him into office was so much balderdash. Again, why, as Glenn Greenwald and others have shown, has Obama continued so many of Bush’s foreign policies, negating the Democrat’s earlier criticisms of the neoconservatives? In short, is there any substantive disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on economic and foreign policies? If not, the public should know how little their vote is worth in their apparent oligarchic duopoly. 

Perhaps the reason so many Americans don’t vote at all is that they do know this, despite the dearth of insight into the candidates’ most deeply held political beliefs, furnished by the so-called debates. And as for the pundits whose patience for intellectual exchanges is so thin that they speak out implicitly against political debates as such when they complain about the overabundance of so-called debates in this Republican nomination process, they perform a valuable anti-intellectual service: they poison the well against the possibility of enlightening philosophical debates between future candidates.


  1. Has it really been twenty years? I have vague memories from childhood of seeing what I thought was a debate between Clinton and Dole in 96, a media farce I guess?

    1. This is a case in which I'm using hyperbole to make a point. I haven't watched every so-called US presidential debate on TV, but my point is that once TV and thus the news anchors got involved, the debates have generally turned into press conferences, so that the recent debate/discussion between Gingrich and Huntsman is noteworthy for breaking from that formula. I don't recall the Clinton Dole debate, so maybe it was another exception.