History Lesson

You Won’t Learn Much From the Debates

But you should watch them anyway.

Since presidential debates became a quadrennial fixture in 1976, the first encounter between the two parties’ nominees has usually drawn more than 60 million viewers. Friday’s face-off between Barack Obama and John McCain—should it go forward—will be no exception. The debates, we’re told, attract such large audiences because they’re the last best chance for voters to soberly size up two candidates, side by side, and come to a decision.

The premise and promise of the debates is that they serve as a tonic for an otherwise underinformed democratic citizenry, providing a key source of data for reasoning voters about the candidates’ views on pressing issues. Unfortunately, over the years the debates have proved to be formulaic, lacking in spontaneity, and full of familiar pablum. But that doesn’t mean they’re a waste of time. Ironically, admitting their failure can help us to see their true value: not as an opportunity for voters to learn anything new about the candidates but rather as an occasion for all of us to get excited about politics.

The notion of the debates as a way to educate independent-minded voters dates to the first televised debates in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The debates’ chief boosters, the TV network executives, celebrated the contests as an event tailor-made for the new mass-media age—a modern counterpart to the 19th-century campaign spectacles such as torchlight parades and mass rallies. Frank Stanton, the legendary president of CBS, dismissed those old-style gatherings as anachronistic—calculated, he said, “not to inform, or to create an atmosphere conducive to the appraisal of information, but to whip up attitudes capable of overcoming any temptation to judiciousness.” By 1960, Stanton said, “We can’t afford the blind, uncritical automatic support of one man against another, whatever his insight, his judgment, or his qualities of leadership.” He asserted that the televised debates treated voters as independent of mind, enlightening them about the candidates’ stands and enabling them to weigh the issues with the care they deserved—a necessity in a modern democracy.

By Stanton’s standard, the debates have failed. To review the reviews of the debates since 1960 is to hear the recurring complaint that the debates aren’t worthy of the name. Each election cycle someone points out that they should be billed as “joint press conferences” and not “debates,” a term that evokes the Lincoln-Douglas jousts, next to which today’s contests are said to pale. In contrast to those fabled encounters between the 1858 Illinois Senate candidates (which weren’t quite so elevated as popular lore would have it), our TV-era debates are derided as scripted and superficial. Candidates don’t debate: They spew boilerplate from their stump speeches, mouth a speechwriter’s one-liner, and try to avoid delving into any free-flowing give-and-take about the “issues” that might lead them to deviate from their talking points. “The debates’ inherent weakness is their show-business nature; their heavy reliance on rehearsal and grooming by professional image-makers; the concern for appearance over substance,” a New York Times editorial complained in 1976.

This verdict is hard to gainsay. Anyone who watched the focus groups of undecided voters convened by the networks to watch the 2000 debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore had to be at least mildly dismayed about the public’s critical thinking. On CBS, for example, one Sandra Harsh said she was swayed by what she had seen. “I was very impressed with Bush’s specifics, his points of—of his program, what he planned to do,” she said. “I like—I liked the line about trusting people, not the federal government. I liked his format for national health care. I—I  think he showed himself as the superior candidate.” Not to be harsh on Sandra, but if viewers who watched that debate came away thinking that Bush would implement a national health care plan, that should give us pause about the debates’ value in transmitting information.

But if the debates fall short of Frank Stanton’s original goal—helping the free-thinking citizen of the modern age rationally judge the candidates on the issues—that doesn’t mean we should tune out. One reason is that Stanton’s model of the value of debates allows no place for people who watch the debates with their minds made up. According to the prevalent view of what the debates should do, these partisans are irrelevant. They’re not included in the networks’ focus groups. No one cares if they watch.

But not everyone who watches the debates belongs to that fetishized class of undecided swing voters. If you’re like me, most years you await the general-election debates with eager anticipation, notwithstanding your longstanding loyalties or your made-up mind. I often find myself at a friend’s apartment, populated by similarly inclined partisans, enjoying the act of rooting for the home team. (This tradition, too, is old. In 1960, Democratic and Republican clubs hosted debate-watching parties, as did Jackie Kennedy in Hyannisport, where Archibald Cox, Arthur Schlesinger, and others gathered over coffee and pastries to watch JFK best Nixon on a rented 16-inch portable TV set.)

How do we fit so many viewers’ enthusiasm for the debates into the picture of their inadequacy as an information source?

The late scholar James Carey once proposed a distinction between what he called a “transmission view” and a “ritual view” of communication. The transmission view—with which most of us usually operate—holds that the purpose of communication (including presidential debates) is to impart information, much as Stanton described. In contrast, the ritual view—”a minor thread in our national thought,” Carey noted—treats acts of communication as rituals like holidays or parades, deriving their meaning from the roles they play in our daily experience. They summon forth or reinforce feelings, dispositions, and attitudes. The campaign events of the 19th century that Stanton breezily denigrated may not have educated voters, but they enriched their daily political experience.

Stanton, it turns out, had it backward: The debates matter because they resemble the rallies and torchlight parades. Indeed, only if we discard the dominant view of today’s debates as a source of information about the candidates’ programs and think of them instead as a civic ritual can we appreciate their real value: a reminder of the pleasures of the campaign, as a social glue, as a spur to political involvement.

One piece of evidence comes from a project called Debate Watch. Starting in 1992, the National Communication Association and the Commission on Presidential Debates set up Debate Watch to bring together citizens in local communities to watch and discuss the contests. Although no hard verdicts are in, evidence suggests that joining in these colloquies inclined people to vote on Election Day. At the least, they appeared, as one scholar of the project noted, to “engage voters in the ideas, perspectives, and concerns of others in their communities.” The post-debate conversations tended to invigorate those who took part, reviving a sense that politics and the election matter.

Soon after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, marveled not about Kennedy’s superior image—the story line from those contests that we remember—but at the more basic phenomenon of renewed voter excitement. “Overnight, as it were,” he wrote, “there was born a new interest in the campaign that earlier had been productive only of coast-to-coast somnolence.”

The choreography and sound bites that constitute the presidential debates may be an unreliable method for casual voters to get the facts about the nominees. But in an age of desiccated politics, when too many citizens feel adrift and overburdened in trying to judge complex policy issues for themselves, the mere experience of watching debates, or in discussing them “the next morning,” as Gould wrote, “in kitchen, office, supermarket and commuter train”—such time spent can have real value if it serves to thicken our commitments to political life.