Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet tonight for the first of their first presidential debates. Coverage of the event has been building in the news media over the last couple of weeks. Who will the winner be? The loser? Can Obama deliver a knock out blow? Can Romney dent the President’s slight lead? Presidential debates are important part of the political spectacle that precedes an election. Yet, I think you should avoid watching the debate, as I plan to do.
I have watched presidential debates for most of my adult life. In college and graduate school it was fun to get together with friends, especially friends with varying political philosophies. Later Anna (my wife) and I would get together with a cup of tea or a glass of wine to listen and discuss what we heard. And yet, this year I am giving the debates a pass and I want to encourage you to as well. Here’s why.
- Debates won’t change your mind. Evidence shows that in the vast majority of cases, presidential debates only serve to strengthen a prior belief about who to vote for. If you find yourself evenly split between the two candidates, I’d still encourage you to give the debate a miss for the reasons that follow.
- Debates don’t deliver content. There is little content in debates. Candidates rarely answer the questions posed in anything other than a superficial way which sets them up to quickly transition into a scripted talking point. Put another way, if a candidate performed this way in a court of law he would be cited for contempt.
- Post-debate analysis will focus on style. In our image-saturated culture the vast majority of analysis will focus on the candidates’ performance rather than their content. If you’re interested in who appeared to be in “in control,” “empathetic” (not likely this time around), and the like then, okay, check out the debate. In reality, debates are a form of sophistry whereby the candidates project an image and provide scripted comments designed to tickle the ears of voters.
- Commentators will engage in a proxy war. It’s inevitable that political commentators will be brought in. Those who are members of the political class are there for a single purpose: to spin the debate performance to create the right impression of the debate ex post facto. Their “analysis” is not analysis, it is political advertisement.
- You’d be better spent by taking an hour to read a few legitimate political writers. If you want to get a sense of the candidates, the issues, and state of the election I’d suggest turning to one or more trusted political writers. Each of these will have a competing slant to their writing. There is, after all, no such thing as objectivity so we shouldn’t be surprised by this. I recommend David Brooks (tends to be conservative) and E. J. Dionne (tends to be progressive).
Questions. Are you planning on watching the debate? Will you do so with others? What do you hope to gain from the experience?