Monday, August 31, 2015

The Great Dumb Debate

Like everyone else who doesn't have cable TV or reliable Internet access I'm really hoping there is a televised political debate this year. The only entertaining things to watch on local TV are the news, televangelists and Mother Nature ads. That's why I am eagerly looking forward to seeing the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader articulate their stance on the issues while insulting each other with biting one-liners.

I know that some poor deluded people like the T&T Debates Commission have grandiose ideas about the role televised political debates have. Something about democracy, accountability and having an informed citizenry. But for us in the real world, televised political debates are just great dumb entertainment. They're like an episode of the show Maury.

Who doesn't love watching politicians brazenly say, “Maury'' I am not the father of those over-budget box drains,” in the hope they are countered with, “Well, the lie detector results are in. When it comes to those over-budget box drains—you are the father!”

I may not get my wish, though. In recent days the debate over the much-hyped debates has descended into squabbling over dates. It seems the T&T Debates Commission sent the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition differently worded letters with each letter implying a different date for the debate. Thus breaking the first rule of a debate club; proof-read your letters before you tell everyone about the debate club!

Much has also been made of the Prime Minister's debate demands. These include a comfy chair, approval of the backdrop and the use of two green rooms. When you consider that the height of local TV production is Crimewatch, these demands don't seem entirely unreasonable.
If the controversy around the debate seems really dumb, we only have ourselves to blame.

In our haste to copy American-style televised presidential debates, we seem to have forgotten that American televised presidential debates are in fact really dumb. Having political leaders debate their agendas in front of a mass TV audience might sound like a good idea. But politicians are people. And people on TV are primarily concerned about one thing—looking good on TV.

In 2012 leaked documents showed just how ludicrously stage-managed US presidential debates have become. Prior to their debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agreed to a 21-page memorandum that listed things like not being able to ask each other questions, not proposing pledges to each other and of course not walking outside the “predesignated area”. There was also considerable time spent on ensuring each candidate occupied the exact same measure of frame on split screen.

All of this is perhaps understandable when you consider what Americans view as the most memorable aspects of past presidential debates. In their “top memorable debate moments'' Time magazine listed such earth-shattering events like Ronald Reagan saying he was paying for his microphone, Al Gore's constant sighing and Hillary Clinton's embarrassing “Change you can Xerox” joke.

Politicians know that we watch political debates in the same way we watch Ninja Warrior. Sure we will be impressed if someone finishes the obstacle course. But we also really want to see someone slip and fall into the water head first.

The other thing politicians know is that they don't need to seriously debate anything. That's because debates are generally a horrible way to persuade people and they rarely affect the outcome of elections. According to the respected PBS journalist and debate moderator, Gwen Ifill, presidential debates have had little effect in determining who becomes president. In an article for the Washington Post she notes: “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates.”

Thus those who believe that televised debates are somehow going to create better informed citizens and enhance our democracy may be disappointed. There is probably more use in having our politicians play a televised all fours competition than engage in a debate. It would require more skill and focus. Plus afterwards there would be no debating who won. When you think about it, who wouldn't have faith in an all fours champion to tackle our nation's problems? It might not make for exciting television, but it's at least something we can all agree on.

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