Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pro-Wrestling and Candidate Debates


Governor Rick Perry of our neighboring state of Texas is running for President. He has stumbled quite a bit in the polls, and in part this has to do with his performance at televised debates with his rivals for the Republican nomination.

Recently, Governor Perry has hinted that he might skip some, perhaps most, of the remaining debates. Other candidates have seized on this to criticize him for depriving voters of the chance to see him tested, and questioning his ability to challenge President Obama.

We declare no harm and no foul. This is silly and matters not one wit, mainly because the televised debates are fake politics. It's a show.

They are highly profitable media events that generate high ratings and lure advertisers. An actual debate between candidates for the highest elected office in the land would be a public service, broadcast for free out of a compelling public interest by companies that have already profited handsomely from use of radio frequency and public infrastructure.

The debates are managed by media professionals who work with the candidate campaigns to design an event that will draw viewers and advertisers. This is not about testing the candidates' ideas or policy goals. This is about putting on a show that will draw viewers and give candidates an opportunity to broadcast their message for free. The content is of little importance.

It's a bit like pro-wrestling, and we cast no aspersions on that sport. There is some actual wrestling going on, but real wrestling is not that exciting to watch by itself; so there is some staged combat, plus characters, contrived feuds, and overall a great work of theatre. It's not "fake." It's a spectacle. It has a huge audience, and a great deal of money is made from it.

(One of the major pop culture events of my childhood was the rivalry between one Hulk Hogan and one "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, which cunningly included celebrities like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper, in a series of ingenious and highly lucrative media spectacles. All of it fictionalized. All of it fun to watch. Ah, the eighties.)

Consider this incident from one of the recent Republican debates. Anderson Cooper, a handsome celebrity CNN reporter embarking on a new venture as a talk show host, asked a question of Governor Perry. His question was about the high rate of children in Texas who are not covered by any medical insurance, despite the state's Children's Health Insurance program that Perry helped to establish.

This might sound like a very good question. In a real debate, that question would force the candidate to account for the outcome of his leadership, compared to his philosophy and policy goals. A credible answer would give a sense of how a candidate might govern.

Rick Perry made little effort even to pretend to answer that question. Instead, out of blue-sky-nowhere, he began talking about a very old scandal involving one of his rivals: allegations that Mitt Romney allowed illegal "aliens" to mow the lawn at one of his mansions.

Perry was allowed to do this. Cooper did not stop him and say, "You are not addressing the question, Governor." There was no follow-up. Perry was allowed to ignore the question and use his time to bring up something irrelevant for the purpose of attacking an opponent. That is standard practice. Many news stories unwittingly acknowledge how fake the debates are, as when a candidate's ability to ignore a question and change the subject is referred to as a "debating skill." If the debate mattered, that would not be considered a skill. It would be considered deceit.

The debates aren't about content. They are not about substance. They are shows. Rick Perry isn't very good at this part of the game, so rationally, he would rather focus elsewhere. Voters aren't actually any poorer for this decision because they aren't learning much from the debates anyway.

An actual debate about substance would likely draw a much smaller audience. More people might develop a taste for it, however, if they had an opportunity to see something real.

We deserve better. We deserve campaigns that are shorter and publicly financed. Strict caps on private money in the electoral process. Public funds should be available to more than two political parties. Likewise, candidate forums should be non-profit events broadcast for the public interest. In a shorter campaign season, there would not be a need for so many of these, and they do not need to be expensive spectacles. Just candidates talking, questioning each other and answering direct questions, moderated by serious people under clear and consistent ground rules.

Don't laugh. We deserve this and there is no good reason we can't have it. Go to any college parliamentary debate tournament, and you will see highly substantive debates on matters of public interest that leave professional politicians in the dust. Kids can participate in that kind of discourse, analyzing arguments and compiling data to make a persuasive case. A debate can be edifying, even entertaining, and educational. We deserve that when elections take place.

It is a disgrace to us, as a people, that we tolerate such brazenly fake politics and politely pretend that this is somehow a representative government. This acquiescence is far more disturbing to me than anything Rick Perry says on television.

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