This election cycle in the United States, televised debates only seem worse than in recent decades. What changed is the urgency of the economic meltdown and the unwillingness of Americans to confront how globalization imposed structural changes on a society ill-prepared for sacrifice and adaptation. No one wants to be wrong. No one wants to be a loser. But explaining why representative democracy has failed to protect the national economy simply exceeds the capacity of a political culture that is oriented to sound bites on television the way the planets rotate around the sun.
Since the airwaves are knit together with private property rights and no political will to challenge that fact, it is too much to expect any changes in the miserable televised debate format, in which candidates for office representing different political parties hurl talking points packaged as paragraphs, focus-grouped and tested, under the benign gaze of talented “journalists” on “expert panels” who have formulated the questions that are answered perhaps 10 percent of the time.
To a mass audience, sitting in front of glowing boxes, it may come at as a surprise that the question, response and rebuttal formats are not debates at all. They are just more evidence of fiddling while Rome burns.
Candidates rarely answer the questions without reframing them to push out rehearsed points aimed to specific demographics. There is nothing wrong with a check list, but given the enormous jeopardy to the economy and the environment—yes, for clean air and clean water! No, to polluters funding the Tea Party!—anyhow, these tawdry affairs are gold-plated with solemnity verging on the ridiculous, as we watch partisans feast on thin gruel.
More than one hundred fifty years ago, two candidates for state senate conducted a series of seven debates, vying for control of the Illinois state legislature. The main issue was slavery. The first candidate had 60 minutes to speak. The second, then had 90 minutes to both deliver his own speech and rebuttal. Then 30 minutes were offered to the first speaker. One was Abraham Lincoln. The other, Stephen Douglas. Which of our national politicians, or talk show hosts, is up to that exercise? Sixty minutes on the mortgage crisis, Wall Street, and the economy.
Today, rigorous debates mostly take place in a side-current of high school and college extra-curricular activities. It is not exactly a lost art. A fair percentage of the million plus attorneys in the U.S. learned the skill of debate at some point in their training. Think about the intellectual qualifications to organize a thirty minute rebuttal; thoughtfulness, mastery of complex subjects, the ability to communicate and to build a line of logic that is understandable. Imagine giving Sarah Palin that challenge.
In recent debates in Florida for governor and US Senate, one had the feeling of candidates on treadmills, walking in the center of the moving walkway, not looking left or right, up or down. Television wants passive consumers susceptible to paid advertisement and politics fits perfectly to that cut, thin panel display or not.
Now that I am warmed up, I note that in these debates– wrong to call them that– the environment has not been mentioned a single time. That is in contrast to past election cycles, when at least one gratuitous nod to clean air and water and wildlife is ritually thrown in to the mix. One assumes the omission of this question means we can no longer afford it: too many serious issues to be avoided.
However, in retrospect, candidates in televised debates have done such poor jobs amplifying their plans to revive the economy and to create jobs and cut taxes and protect seniors — falling back on horrendous canards or blaming President Obama– that one concludes: why not question the environment? After all, it is not a mere inconvenience if one’s well is poisoned, or genes confused by exposure to toxics, or the largest extinction of species since comets plowed into the earth 60 million years ago. Make the candidates speak for ten minutes on the environment. It would be a wonder to behold.
Network television should agree that all televised debates should be in a debate format that prevents falling back to sound bites. One topic per two and a half hours. Here is a good place to start: NIMBY: Not In My Backyard, or, the Next Idiot Might Be You?
ALAN FARAGO is a board member of Friends of the Everglades, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org