You Have My Permission to Ignore the Debates

I am writing this column while not watching Wednesday’s presidential debate.

I can’t remember the last time I saw one. I miss most speeches, too, whether by the candidates or their surrogates. I catch up with the transcripts, but only when I have time for reflection about what the candidates have said. Politics at its best is about ideas, and the battle of ideas isn’t visual.

I must confess that I don’t get the excitement about the debates. I have written before about my difficulties with the format, and the silliness of trying to do the serious work of democracy by demanding that candidates squeeze their answers to challenging questions into two minutes - far less time than high-school debaters are given.

Historians remind us that the claim of the importance of the debates is largely mythical, that even the fabled John Kennedy-Richard Nixon contest in 1960 probably had less effect on the outcome of the election than we like to remember. Few votes are changed. Few undecideds turn into decideds. Yet millions watch.

Quite possibly the importance of the debates is due to media hype. What social scientists call the “availability heuristic” is our tendency to exaggerate the commonness or importance of something simply because it is familiar to us. Psychologists have known for years that repeated stories in the news media about a particular type of event -- children being kidnapped, for example -- tend to cause the public to think that such episodes occur far more frequently than they actually do.

Self-Important

So perhaps we watch the debates because of the steady drumroll telling us how important they are. And they are important -- to the news media. They fit perfectly into the world of politics as presented on television, in which the candidates have little time to say anything, but the commentators have as much time as they need.

Critics of what currently passes for debate often laud the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. There the presenter had an hour, the respondent 90 minutes, and the presenter an additional half-hour to respond. Today’s audience, conditioned to the quick rather than the deep, would never sit still for anything so lengthy.

Or so we are told. It’s important to remember how the Lincoln-Douglas debates came about: Both Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the incumbent senator, were barnstorming through Illinois. Douglas, the more famous politician, would speak in a town, and the less-known Lincoln would follow immediately on his heels, hoping that the crowds still excited by Douglas would want to see his rival, too. Unhappy with the small size of his audiences, Lincoln proposed that the two men appear on the same stage. The newspapers mocked the idea, but Lincoln persisted, and Douglas, to everyone’s surprise, agreed.

There is something attractive about the candidates appearing on the same stage, allowing us to judge them side by side, and Lincoln was no doubt hoping that he might look better than the more experienced Douglas. Maybe he did. But though Lincoln turned out to be an excellent debater and probably won on points, it was Douglas who was elected to the Senate.

So why do we go through it, this silly, substance-free exercise that changes few minds and reinforces the misguided notion that political arguments are best resolved through slogans and applause lines? One answer might be our love of tradition: We’ve been doing it this way for a long time. It was good enough for Kennedy and Nixon, and -- well, you get the idea.

Competitive Urges

A better answer, however, is our love of competition. It is competition of a particular kind -- the kind that can be reduced to the size of a television screen and the length of a prime- time special. Consider: On the night of the debate, and endlessly the morning after, commentators said Romney had “won” the debate, as though what tens of millions had turned in to view what was in effect an award show.

I must confess that the notion leaves me at a loss. At its best, debate might provide a forum for the candidates to communicate their views, unmediated, to the voters. That doesn’t make it a competition.

As a law professor, I use the Socratic method, calling on students at random to answer questions. If one student gives a good answer and another a poor one, I don’t assume -- I hope nobody does! -- that the first student has won and the second has lost. We’ve learned nothing about which will be the better lawyer. Judging them isn’t the point of the pedagogy.

In his fascinating 2005 book “The Economy of Prestige,” James F. English argues that the explosion of awards shows over the past half-century reflects a cultural shift from awards as a proxy for quality to awards as ends in themselves. Awards have become important not for anything they tell us about the underlying works, but because of the value of the shows themselves as entertainment.

This seems a sufficient explanation for both the longevity of and the attention paid to the pointless exercise of presidential debates. They’re fun. Score is kept -- some networks even keep a running tally of focus group responses as the debate proceeds -- and of course many viewers have a rooting interest. When President Barack Obama’s disappointed partisans complain that their candidate didn’t go after his opponent harder, they sound very much like spectators at a football game, wanting to know how on earth the cornerback dropped a sure interception.

English suggests that the surge in award shows is a response to the growing sense that other sorts of valued honors -- doctoral degrees, for example, or Pulitzer Prizes -- are parceled out by an elite most of us will never join or even influence. But in the U.S. today, he says, people like to feel that their voices matter in just about everything. Thus we find a proliferation of award shows where the audience can influence the outcome.

Media Control

Perhaps this notion can teach us something about the future of the presidential debates. Such value as they may possess may never be unleashed until they become a reaction against a media establishment that seeks to control not only the debates themselves but also the audience’s reaction to them.

The economist Alex Tabarrok has proposed transforming the debates into a game show -- “So You Think You Can Be President” -- that would include segments such as this:

“Presidential candidates are provided with an economic scenario (mortgage defaults are up, hedge funds are crashing, liquidity is tight). Three experts propose plans. The candidate must choose one of the plans. After the candidate chooses, the true identities of the ‘experts’ are revealed. One is a trucker, another a scuba diver instructor and the last a distinguished economist. Which did the candidate choose?”

Maybe Tabarrok is on to something. If we want the candidates to entertain us, we can surely design a format that does exactly that -- while still showcasing the candidates’ mastery of skills actually needed in the Oval Office. Choosing from competing ideas is certainly among them. Snappy one-liners went out with vaudeville.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his most recent novel is “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinion expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu or @StepCarter on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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