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.

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