Whoever wins TV debates, we lose

Mitt Romney’s resounding triumph in the first televised debate with President Obama reportedly has got his campaign back on track. More to the point, it showed yet again the faults of unchecked democracy run riot.

The assumption behind such TV jousts seems to be that they enable people to make up their minds. And the assumption behind the assumption is that the better debater would make a better statesman.

One can infer that the 67 million Americans who watched the debate would consider voting for a candidate simply because he is blessed with quickness on the uptake, acting ability, a gift of the gab, photogenic appearance, good dental work and a knack for talking much and saying little. Yet not only are such qualities not essential to statesmanship but they are nearer to being antithetical.

Debates fail by a long margin to answer two fundamental questions: 1) What will this man do if elected? and 2) Does he have the strength of mind and character to do it? The only matter settled by such a debate is who that day looked better on camera.

Imagine for the sake of argument St Thomas Aquinas and Christopher Hitchens having a televised debate on the existence of a Trinitarian God, with 67 million people voting on the winner.

Hitchens’s gift of the gab was legendary. In his heyday he was handsome, dapper, witty and insouciantly flippant. Moreover, he was a veteran of many such spectaculars, invariably acquitting himself with glory. By contrast, St Thomas’s introspection and taciturnity earned him the pejorative nickname of ‘dumb ox’ at Paris University. He wasn’t outgoing, elegant or particularly handsome, and neither did he ever display much wit or lightness of touch.

My guess is that in such a debate Christopher would wipe the floor with Thomas. Swayed by his facile arguments and seduced by his clever asides, at least 80 percent of the viewing audience would be persuaded: there is no God. Yet, capitalising on the benefit of hindsight, we know that Aquinas was one of the deepest thinkers in history, while Hitchens was an intellectual pygmy.

Also, Aquinas not only had at his fingertips all the scholarship available on this issue, but he also multiplied it and raised it to an unmatched height. Hitchens, on the other hand, was blissfully ignorant and manifestly unqualified to enlarge on this subject, at least this side of fashionable bars in Hampstead or Manhattan.

Admittedly, which of the two candidates would make a better president is a simpler problem than my hypothetical one. Yet reductio ad absurdum is a time-honoured way of pointing out the inadequacy of one proposition and by inference upholding another: no serious issue can be settled by a televised debate. We’ll know who’s the better debater, not who’s the better statesman. The two aren’t the same.

Much more productive would be for each candidate to present, in writing, his proposed programme of action, complete with detailed, factual and specific explanation of the desirability of each point. If he so wishes, he may also point out the differences between his plans and his opponent’s. He should then give a solemn, preferably legally binding, pledge to keep each promise, stipulating the sole possible circumstances that may prevent him from doing so.

After the people have familiarised themselves with the programmes, each candidate would then make any number of speeches in whatever medium is appropriate and affordable, elucidating the more recondite points and reiterating orally the promises he has made in writing. Then the voters would decide.

The obvious objection to this proposal is that a generation that has made reality TV its crowning intellectual achievement would be unable to evaluate the fine points of either programme, or even possibly to read the documents containing them. Fair enough. This objection is perfectly valid, though not as a negation but as an assertion. For it’s a ringing argument in favour of limited franchise.

This is no implied denigration of government by consent. On the contrary, making sure that only those qualified to vote will do so elevates the notion of consent to intellectual plausibility. For only those qualified to vote can elect those qualified to govern.

A frivolous parallel, if I may. Lately we’ve had quite a few rape cases featuring a victim who was drunk at the time of the incident. The prosecutors argue, and the juries often agree, that, though the sex act appeared to be consensual, the woman wasn’t qualified to give consent because her inebriated mental faculties weren’t up to the task. To revert to political lingo, she wasn’t qualified to cast her vote in favour of having sex.

Why then should we assume that anyone, but anyone, is qualified to give consent on the policies that would better serve his country or on the man better able to carry them out? Surely the complexities involved trump the binary yes-no problem of a night on the town?

Meanwhile, our two jousters rode in on their steeds and broke lances over everything under the sun, not so much scratching the surface of each issue as stroking it. Romney strove to prove that he’s human after all – an act of implicitly begging forgiveness for being rich. He also tried to communicate that, though ostensibly a moderate conservative, he’s at heart a liberal softie. Obama wisely eschewed any serious attempts to defend his lousy record in office. Instead he sought to explain that, though ostensibly a socialist, he’s at heart a hardnosed realist.

Romney did the job better, but whoever wins such a contest it’s always the country that loses. One only wishes that we hadn’t learned from the Americans to stage such vulgar beauty pageants. We should develop our own vulgarities.






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