The presidential debates are performance art. They’re Kabuki.
Summary: The presidential debates reveal little about the candidates, much about our political system, and everything about us as citizens.
Part one of two. See part two: A reminder that debates are fun, not politics: Reagan had Alzheimer’s in 1984 and we didn’t notice.
The Presidential debates display in pure form the nature of our elections: they are stylized performance art, and evaluated as such by critics.
How effective were the candidates’ body posture, facial expressions, hand movements, tone and inflection of voice? How artlessly did they lie?
Improvisation is, of course, highly valued. The ability to strike an emotional cord with the audience, to feign empathy, make witty repartee — all these things bring high scores.
The debates are Kabuki adapted for an American audience, in two senses. First, they’re predictable: we learn nothing from the content. Second, they are entertainment for members of the Outer Party (the educated worker class, from 1984; see Wikipedia). For the proles as well, who watch snippets of the good parts on the news and YouTube — especially of any gaffes.
Nobody expects what the candidates say during debates to foretell what they’ll do if elected. That’s been a fantasy since FDR ran to the right of Hoover in 1932 (cut those deficits!) and (like LBJ in 1964) as a peace candidate in 1940. Slow students learned this from Obama’s actions during the past four years. We don’t expect, demand or get fidelity of our leaders to their words.
Larger issues revealed by the debates
What’s changed? We have. We get the campaigns we want, and probably deserve. They’d not volley sound-bites with journalists if the reaction was public scorn and mockery.
Why doesn’t one of the candidates challenge us, offering serious discussions of the important decisions facing America? These are intelligent men, with deep understanding of the issues. They could do so, but don’t. Such questions usually result from a failure of the ORIENTATION aspect of one’s OODA loop, a failure to see the world through the other person’s eyes.
Imagine yourself as a candidate for high office, and you must win for the sake of America. Today you address an audience whose support you need for victory. But they are dogs. Do you discuss the perils facing the Second Republic? The delicate macroeconomic crisis? The complex process of globalization which America must master to prosper in the 21 century?
Only a fool would do so. A rational person would promise free bones, slow cats, and an immediate halt to castrations. Anything more would confuse them, perhaps even anger them. An aroused pack of hounds can become dangerous.
Elections will improve when we require that they do so. Not before. We need no tinkering with the rules, just the audience.
(a) Glenn Greenwald goes to the heart of the matter, describing how the two candidates spent so much of the debate agreeing with each other — and avoiding the vital subjects on which agree most strongly:
- “The US presidential debates’ illusion of political choice“, The Guardian — “The issue is not what separates Romney and Obama, but how much they agree. This hidden consensus has to be exposed”
(b) A good sign: the news media rediscovers the difference between fact and fiction!
- “Factchecking the first presidential debate of 2012“, Washington Post, 4 October 2012
- “Rise of the Nonsense Wonk“, Kerry Howley, Slate, 4 October 2012
- “The Biggest (And Least Discussed) Lie Of The Debate? Romney’s False Claim About Clean Energy Bankruptcies“, Stephen Lacey, TPM, 4 October 2012
(c) The GOP releases their version of the debate: “Smirk”
From their press release. Promises to improve everything but the weather: more jobs, lower taxes, lower deficit. No details how all this to be accomplished.
For more information
For all posts about this see the FM Reference Page About Politics in America
About our political campaigns
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008 — Comparing our campaigns to those of the past.
- Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010 — Campaigns are just the biggest stage.
About elections in America:
- Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
- About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
- The economy speaks – and votes, 12 August 2010
- The winners and losers from this election, hidden amidst the noise, 3 November 2010
- Why do awesome people – like us – have such inadequate leaders?, 2 April 2012 — Because we vote.