“Television Makes Impossible the Determination of Who is Better Than Whom”
All my life, I’ve been the kind of uncool person who wanted some space for serious things to be discussed seriously. And now there’s one more political debate coming up this week, this one among the non-Trump candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2024 election, which is my excuse for this gripe about television and politics, or at least what those debates have become in the modern era.
Neil Postman, in his 1985 jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, put it this way in his discussion of political debates:
The point is that television does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image.” But not because politicians are preoccupied with presenting themselves in the best possible light. After all, who isn’t? It is a rare and deeply disturbed person who does not wish to project a favorable image. But television gives image a bad name. For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. …We are not permitted to know who is best at being President or Governor or Senator, but whose image is best at touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.
Postman argues that what underlies the interaction of television and politics is fundamentally similar to what underlies all commercial advertising. In the pre-Internet age, he writes:
Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials. … By “philosophy,” I mean that television communication has embedded in it certain assumptions about the nature of communication … For one thing, the commercial insists on an unprecedented brevity of communication. … A sixty-second commercial is prolix; thirty seconds is longer than most; fifteen to twenty seconds is about average … The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry. This is, of course, a preposterous theory about the roots of discontent … But the commercial disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument. …
Such beliefs would naturally have implications for our political discourse; that is to say, we may begin to accept as normal certain assumptions about the political domain that either derive from or are amplified by the television commercial. For example, a person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures–or ought to. Or that complex language is not to be trusted, and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression. Or that argument is in bad taste, and leads only to an intolerable uncertainty.
I suppose the parallel complaint in the modern era would be that we no longer judge politicians on the basis of those lengthy 30-second TV spots, but instead on the basis of internet memes and 240-character messages on social media. But I confess that every time the host of a presidential debate says something like–“How should the US bring peace to the Middle East? You have 90 seconds”–something inside me dies a little. Even worse is when the moderator asks for a show of hands on who supports or opposes some proposition.
It seems to me that most people watch televised political debates for several reasons. First, they are hoping for a car crash–that is, a moment when some candidate gets off an especially good zinger or says something exceptionally incoherent or revolting. Second, they like viewing themselves as detached and above-it-all critics of what might play well or badly with the broader public. Third, they are asking themselves if the persona presented on television appeals to them. You’ll hear people make post-debate comments like: “Seems like a nice person.” “I can relate to them. “The kind of person you could sit down and have a beer with.” “That candidate stands up for me (or fights for me).”
These kinds of reasons are all understandable in some sense, but they are an extraordinarily poor way to decide who would be a good president or governor. Great leaders might not be especially good at zingers–and zingers may not be the most useful skill for a top administrator. Great leaders may not be especially warm and fuzzy, although they can fake it for short periods. The question of whether a politician has the skills to lobby key members of the legislature and build a majority maybe rather different from whether you would like to have a beer with them.
I’m resigned to the current state of political advertising and political debates, in the sense that I can ignore them. But surely, it surely would be nice to have some method of interaction that that offered a more revealing look–a kind of job market interview–for political candidates. Part of that is to show a command of topics in economics, politics, and international affairs, both with a chance to explain their position and to explain what they would say to those who disagree. But in addition, my desired interaction would find ways to dig down into abilities related to executive skills like management, negotiation, and consensus-building. It may be that an extended interview, or several of them, would do a better job of revelation than a debate. Or perhaps there could be a common set of questions where candidates would post a five-minute answer at a common website–with a rule that the answer needed to be delivered in the form of a talking head in front of a blue screen, with no teleprompter and no production values.
If we are to have political debates, can we at least find a way to make them more than sound bites? As Postman points out, the first Lincoln-Douglas debate back in 1860 featured Douglas having an opening address for 60 minutes, Lincoln with a 90-minute rebuttal, and then Douglas with a 30-minute closing statement. And this was a shorter than some of their previous exchanges. In 1854, the opening statement for Douglas took three hours, then they broke for dinner, and reconvened for Lincoln to have an equal time for a response.
Even for me, that sounds like a lot. But the current debates are, to me, unwatchable. I can feel the candidates trying to reach for a zinger, or trying to touch what they believe might be the deep reaches of popular discontent, and it seems awkward and unproductive.