Everyone’s a debate expert

On Thursday morning, I was not glued to ABC24, watching the US presidential debate. While I share the fascination of US politics with many of my compatriots, there is something a little obscene about watching a debate between two people vying to become leader of another country. Still, I sat immobile, at the blood bank, and without a paper, was glued instead to my Twitter feed which, naturally enough, was full to the brim with commentary about the unfolding proceedings.

The general thrust, from observers here and abroad, was, to paraphrase, “Romney is handing it to Obama.” Great, fine, but why?

“Obama looks tired, listless, angry, irritated.”

“Romney is more upbeat, likable, his zingers are really landing”

“Looks presidential”

And so on.

Really? This is it? It is at this point, it feels like an actual explanation of the purpose of debates is in order. Debates exist so that undecided voters have an opportunity to see the candidates for whom they may vote offering their policies, ideas and personalities under the microscope of opposition from their fiercest rival.

There is no media intervention. There are no press advisers. The candidate can’t call the event short if things aren’t going well. It’s unvarnished, open and even. Voters can see for themselves who makes the better case for election.

Instead, we get assessment from the media about who ‘won’. And who ‘won’ rarely won on the basis of policy or substance. Ordinarily, this would be fine, but for two things.

First, it’s undoubtedly leached from American politics to here. As the post-mortems continue to tend towards the vacuous, as have the policy pronouncements of the candidates. This is terrible for everyone involved.

Second, and far more insidiously, the public have absorbed these lessons, and now also view the debates as a discussion about ‘who won’, rather than ‘I saw a policy position that I was unaware of and it has changed my thinking about the election’. In all of the media reports I saw about the US debate, interviews with Jane and John Q. Public involved them offering the same pat dissertations on who won and why.

“Obama looked listless,” “Romney really took it to him, was more assertive,” etc.

Ad bloody nauseum.

Assessing who won a debate as a means of determining who won a debate is ludicrous, bordering on the Kafkaesque. Oh, for one person to say something to the effect of “I felt that, irrespective of body language, I felt Romney was convincing that he’s not out to gut the middle class and hand money to the wealthy, so, yeah, he was good.” Just one. But because they don’t, there is need for the speakers to say anything of value.

When ordinary punters are viewing debates through the lens of the media to this extent, let’s just call the whole thing off, because it has officially become another campaign event, rather than a ‘debate’.