As we enter the electoral season in Switzerland and the United States, debates in public venues as well as on television are taking place. Candidates for the two chambers in the Swiss Parliament are squaring off; Republican presidential hopefuls are going at it across America. (Pugilistic metaphors are appropriate since the media judges the winners and losers much as referees decide boxing matches.)
Why are debates important? What do they tell us about the candidates? There have been great debates in American history. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 remain a shining example of sophisticated discussion. The two held seven debates across Illinois in their race for the Senate which focused mainly on the issue of slavery. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate had 30 minutes to reply. The presentations were edited and printed and remain outstanding examples of oratory skills.
On the other hand, the first debates on television, the four Nixon-Kennedy debates for the presidential election of 1960, remain an example of a perverse television effect. If one listens to the first debate, watched by over 70 million viewers, Nixon had the better answers. If one watches the debate, the charm of Kennedy overwhelms the Republican who refused makeup and suffered from a gloomy image from his heavy stubble. All candidates since have realized the importance of looking good if not presidential.
Are these debates relevant? Certainly in Parliaments like the House of Commons in England debating skills are important. Many British officials have been trained at institutions like the Oxford Union where debating competitions are judged. Indeed, in a traditional Anglo-Saxon education, debating is required. Are these skills relevant today? What skills are the candidates showing during debates to convince us to vote for them? More and more candidates in the United States look like movie stars. The elections of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California or Ronald Reagan as president have more to do with their theatrical abilities than political acumen. We may enjoy a politician's performance during a debate, but that does not necessarily mean the person will be a competent elected official. Preparing a budget, or working in a committee to prepare legislation is not the same as charming an audience. Discussions among heads of state have an element of charm, but presiding over a country requires skills not evident in campaign debates, as President Obama is surely finding out.
I must admit I enjoy watching debates, but then again I enjoy being entertained at the theatre as well.