The Real Problem With Televised Debates: The Viewers

Most of us have forgotten how to engage in the underlying political issues of our day

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A family gathers around a TV to watch John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the first televised presidential debate on Sept. 26, 1960.

Tomorrow night, millions of us will be watching President Obama and Governor Romney face off for the first time. At partisan watch parties, we’ll be scrutinizing the combatants for every high-definition facial tic and every telling unscripted moment. We’ll make knowing references to sighs and flop sweats and glances at watches. We’ll have absorbed weeks of pre-debate spin, including a comical race to see which camp can lower expectations most. We’ll eagerly track gaffes and memes trending on Twitter. We’ll be primed, as soon as the show is over, for the post-debate spin.

And we will call this citizenship.

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Earlier this year, for the first time, I read the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates in their entirety. It was slow going, but it was an awe-inspiring experience. The two candidates for Senate were able to hold forth for hours on end with lucid, agile arguments about nation-defining issues like slavery and popular sovereignty. But what was truly awesome was the audience. In all seven debates, a crammed outdoor audience of thousands of Lincoln folks and Douglas folks was able and willing to catch every nuance of argument, to laugh at every subtle jab, to jeer every attempted evasion. They’d often continue the arguments on their own, in the streets and saloons and lodge halls. And they did so even though back then, those with the vote couldn’t even vote directly for U.S. senators.

For tomorrow’s presidential debate, the audience will be orders of magnitude larger and radically more inclusive and enfranchised than the throngs of white men who followed Lincoln and Douglas up and down Illinois 154 years ago. But it will also be less active in self-government, and less ready to reckon with arguments from the opposition.

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Like the Lincoln-Douglas audiences, we’ll be watching for entertainment, but we will be supremely attuned to superficial flaws, a tendency that has only increased since the first televised debate in 1960 brought Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip to the fore. And unlike the Lincoln-Douglas audience, we won’t be particularly adept at engaging each other in discussion about most of the underlying issues. Can government stimulus create jobs? Does austerity lead to growth? Does this period require more sacrifice from everyone? Can we reverse the shrinkage of the middle class? Think about how little of the pre-debate commentary has been about such questions. Think about how few of us contemplate such questions in politically mixed company.

You can blame TV for this, and you can blame contemporary politicians who’ve learned to fake authenticity and to memorize sound bites and zingers. The blame, however, lies truly with us — “We, the Audience” — for thinking that active spectatorship is the same as active citizenship. Everyone loves a good show. But democracy asks that everyone make the show. And most Americans don’t really know how to do that.

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What if in every town in America, Republicans and Democrats met somewhere to watch the debates together, and then afterwards, in a tag-team Lincoln-Douglas format, citizens from each side debated each other? And not just on national issues, but local ones as well. That way, the TV spectacle would be just the warm-up act, a way to get us face-to-face with neighbors and political adversaries.

It’s too easy simply to lament the decline of candidate quality from Lincoln’s time to our own. We get exactly the candidates and the debates we deserve, now that the franchise is open to all. It’s up to us, by showing up after the show, to prove that this is progress.

MORE: Is Romney Doomed? Not Yet

16 comments
James Mulhern
James Mulhern

I can't believe that Obama did not address

Romney's 47 percent comment.  I support President Obama but was very

disappointed that he did not use the debate to defend a group of people who

were demoralized, disavowed, and denigrated by Romney's words.  I am a

high school English teacher at an inner-city school in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

 Most of my students "depend" on the government because they

have life circumstances that are particularly difficult.  I wish Mr.

Romney was in my classroom that day to see the outrage, and frankly, the

humiliation and sadness that he created in the faces of the children before me.

 And I also wish that President Obama had used this opportune moment to

advocate for those adults and especially the children who were insulted and disparaged.

 We hear time and again that "words can hurt."  I'm sure

I'm not the only teacher who witnessed the sad truth of this adage the day

after Romney’s words were released.

 

James Mulhern,

www.synthesizingeducation.net 

 

Darrel K.Ratliff
Darrel K.Ratliff

If you see a Politicization dodging a question  then its time to question the idea that he should represent you in office the ball is in your court  YOU VOTE  Your conscience based on YOUR thoughts not the ideas  that hes soft soaping you to  the end of a hangman noose  on top of the trap door he has the key to your demise  be it  wallet or real life (healthcare,National security, or other regulations depending on YOUR thoughts alone.

josephmateus
josephmateus

Mr. Eric Liu, you've got to be kidding. Nowadays politics are very different from the 1858 Lincoln times. Today people are more polarized to the opposite end extremes, more irreconcilable more divided than ever in political  economic and social ideology. If ideologically opposed neighbours all got together to discuss politics, they would be physically fighting like  mongrels, throwing beer cans and bottles at each other, and even pulling guns and shooting at each other. Nice neighbourhoods would become physical battle grounds, with extreme political views dividing them into unabated hatred.  

Therefore I am sure that you wouldn't want to see this bedlam in your neighbourhood. Wisdom tells you that we are all safer and better off not to discuss politics in public, but you seem not to have any wisdom at all. Ever you ever wondered that in democracies the voting ballots are secret? There is a darn good reason for this: It allows you to vote freely without being harassed, insulted nor prosecuted for your political views. 

It is at the voting booth that you express your political social and economic views, not with your neighbours and strangers.

mamamouse56
mamamouse56

Yep, ok.  Guess it's like Mr Liu said: we get the government we deserve.  I grieve for the America I love.

Politics is not a spectator sport.

Talendria
Talendria

Do you honestly believe the country is more polarized today than it was right before the Civil War?  People had very strong opinions then as now.  Many felt that life and liberty was at stake.  That's as serious as it gets.  

The first rule of debate is attack the idea, not the person.  In doing so, you spare the other person's dignity, setting the stage for a future compromise or at least a future debate.  In presenting your case with facts and analogies, you often expand your own understand of the issue.  Unless you're in a forensics competition, debate isn't really about winning; it's about learning and educating.

I think the reason people argue in such an ugly fashion today is that they lack the vocabulary, knowledge base, and rhetorical skills to express their ideas, and all they care about is winning.  It's petty and childish.  We should all be better than that.

Bill Pearlman
Bill Pearlman

So what your saying is that bunch of idiot white guys seemed to be able to follow the Lincoln Douglas debates. But the vastly larger mutitudes can't even follow the entertainment show that  we'll  see tomorrow night.  And your right

ChiefBoardOp
ChiefBoardOp

One of the things Romney said he would defund is  PBS tv  and the arts   then where would we get Less biased news?  Non networked stuff that has a corporate bias to it  regardless right of left its bias  

mmill928
mmill928

The only problem I have with this article is that the link labeled "local" is broken.

Talendria
Talendria

Great article!  It's tempting to blame the public education system, which is certainly failing to teach most of our citizens how to think critically, but the broader problem stems from cultural changes.  In 1858, most of this country still had a frontier mentality.  In order to survive, people had to work together.  Over the years, we've lost our appetite both for working and togetherness.  Now we seek to make our existence as lazy and insular as possible.  We've also given ourselves permission to be overtly rude in ways that would've been unthinkable even 20 years ago.  Lack of civility turns thoughtful debate into a mud-slinging contest.

ChiefBoardOp
ChiefBoardOp

the only problem with debates are the commentators twist on the words of those going for election   the interpretations of  talking heads regardless of network  put a spin   on it regardless of intent of the speaker or debater.

When  a Commentator puts it in his own language he interprets the debate and puts subtle twists  in accordance to his own level of values regardless if they are liberal or conservative  its  still slanted when defined by any Media.   The public is best  left to listen to it   digest it then   listen again to see if they heard what they thought they heard   then your ready to hear others opinions of  what was said.  but NOT till then.

babycheeks
babycheeks

 I disagree. The press allows them to lie and evade any answer of significance. Seldom does the candidate answer the question directly and even less seldom does the press demand they do so.

Darrel K.Ratliff
Darrel K.Ratliff

If you see a Politicization dodging a question  then its time to question the idea that he should represent you in office the ball is in your court  YOU VOTE  Your conscience based on YOUR thoughts not the ideas  that hes soft soaping you to  the end of a hangman noose  on top of the trap door he has the key to your demise  be it  wallet or real life (healthcare,National security, or other regulations depending on YOUR thoughts alone.Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/...

HughNew
HughNew

like Ruth replied I'm alarmed that any one able to make $6475 in one month on the network. did you see this(Click on menu Home)   

HughNew
HughNew

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