Debate reaction

I have a hard time watching & responding to the debates.

A friend of mine just commented on Facebook that the debates ought to be about informing the public about each candidates policies, not about winning or losing. A sentiment I think most of us share: an honest & open discussion of the facts fits the democratic ideal far more than a verbal boxing match.

Yet I suspect the percentage of viewers who approach the debates with this mindset is incredibly small. On the one hand, you have people who follow politics, are generally well-informed already and probably have already chosen a candidate. I fit in this group. I certainly didn’t go into the debate last night waiting to hear if McCain could persuade me that his policies are superior to Obama’s. Short of McCain radically switching his positions in a big debate surprise, that’s not going to happen. The same is likely true for most strong McCain supporters.

The debates really aren’t for people like me then. They’re for “independents” and “undecideds.” Now I do not doubt for a minute that there are true moderates out there that are informed and engaged, but are truly undecided for some reason or another. I even know people fitting this description! But this does not describe the majority of undecideds. The majority are undecided because they aren’t generally interested in politics and are uninformed as a result.

So when they tune in to a debate, do we expect them to want nuanced policy arguments, full of statistics and historical references? No, and if that did describe the debate, they’d not be in a very good position to judge the winner anyway. They want the candidate to appear knowledgeable, but do they really want the 90 minute debate to be an educational experience for themselves? So, as we all know, elections become about vague qualities like “likability,” how well a candidate represents abstract values like “change” or “experience,” and post-debate analysis is about posture, poise, manners, etc.

This might sound like I’m dumping on undecideds. I’m not, so bear with me for a minute. And the reason I’m not just dumping on undecideds is because the undecideds don’t run the debates or the campaigns. They’re not the pundits. They’re not the majority of the people watching the debates either.

The reason I have such a problem watching the debate is that nothing hinges on how me, or people like me, respond to the debate. For me to respond to the debate in a meaningful way, I basically have to imagine how I might respond if I were less informed, less opinionated, less, well, decided. So I too end up dwelling on how McCain’s lack of eye contact with Obama appeared disrespectful, on whether Obama’s frequent agreement with McCain made him look weak or reasonable & diplomatic. So even for those who do care deeply about the issues, the debates essentially become about the superficial because we too believe that this is where the election is decided (though not for us, of course, we know better).

This, of course, contributes greatly to the problem. It may be that these are the things undecideds gravitate towards. In absence of clear information about the issues, that may even be a rational thing for them to do, at least as a first step. But when the punditry & partisans play along, that’s what truly solidifies the narrative for everybody. It is, as they say, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

For example, watch this clip from a Fox News focus group lead by Frank Luntz:

These swing voters aren’t informed by the debate, rather they are moved towards one candidate or the other. The method of tracking how well they respond to each candidate? A “hot-cold” dial the respondent uses to react to what the candidate says by the second. Praise the troops, you get a rise. Pander to the “middle class” or “Main Street,” get a rise.

Now, like I said, it’s very possible that this is, in fact, the level at which political decisions are made for these voters. But it’s also possible that by making all of politics operate at this level, we’re contributing to the disenchantment with politics we’re trying to explain, predict and control. It’s possible politics could be about more than this gut-level superficiality, and it’s even possible that more people might become engaged in politics if they were asked to raise their game to participate rather than being treated like shallow, uneducated children.

This, of course, is not limited to debates but to all coverage of politics these days. It’s all “meta-coverage.” If Obama introduces a new policy, the media coverage is not about how the policy works and what it’s impact will be. Instead it’s all about how different groups of people will react to the policy and how the policy is an attempt by the Obama campaign to reach certain demographic groups. Within the ideological groups of liberals or conservatives, there may be vibrant and detailed discussion of the details of this policy, but that’s not what floats to the surface of the public discourse.

Now what did I think of the debate? I thought it was pretty much a draw but I’m pleasantly surprised to find that most of the early response indicates an Obama win.