Last night there was the sixth televised mostly statewide where at least three of the major candidates participated. The 99 percent of the electorate that typically tunes these out shouldn’t worry about missing anything as long as they’ve seen at least one, since it gave yet another chance for Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle to speak French, for Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne to say he might raise taxes, and for state Rep. John Bel Edwards another chance to lie about Medicaid expansion (the newest one being that states that accept it can get out of it, when the legal analysis and political ramifications of Arkansas’ experience prove otherwise), and for all of them to moan and gripe about Republican Sen. David Vitter not attending and to make sport of him in his absence.
Of course, of that 99 percent, about 99 percent of them will have had no plans to watch one of these or the last of these prior to the general election this weekend. To almost every voter, these are seen not as chances to inform, but as interruptions to their television viewing schedules. So when the chattering classes get upset about the presentation of these, it’s really a tempest in a teapot.
Objections mainly focus on the same thing, the control that individual television stations and candidates have over the process. These concerned guardians of the republic complain that stations base formatting and timing decisions too much on obtaining prestige and thereby allow candidates too much ability to dictate terms so as to get these on the air and stations’ name and personnel in front of the cameras with candidates. They claim this produces less informative events that only poorly show who the candidates really are and what they think (if this even is possible). Those disgruntled critics often, in this specific instance, point to Vitter’s casual treatment of what they see as life-altering events by his deigning to appear at just two of these, and by his (primarily; other candidates seem to have had a hand in this as well) attempts to dampen spontaneity at these as indictments of a broken process.
But they should not mistake their desire for lots of debates at which everybody major shows as indicative of fulfilling a serious civic responsibility on their parts. By now, these have become almost exclusively exercises in repetition, if not overkill. After all, in this one election cycle there will have been seven such forums that had at these at least all but one considered major candidate broadcast to most if not all media markets in the state – more than the amount of similar soirees in 2003, 2007, and 2011 combined. And those at which all deemed major candidates have appeared is about the average across those three previous cycles. Just how many do you have to have to uncover anything and everything pertinent about all candidacies?
Of course, keep in mind the great exaggeration made of the informational benefits of “debates,” which really aren’t. In a true debate, over issues candidates would have, if not unlimited then much more than these televised simulacrum give them being typically on the order of 30-60 seconds, enough time appropriate to answer questions completely. Further, they would be able to cross-examine each other, again granted sufficient time to query and counter, which seldom happens at these confabulations.
As a result of lack of these features, these forums turn out to be long on chances for “gotcha” moments triggered by a format that prides itself on simplistic and demagogic rhetoric and short on opportunities for real in-depth probing of the strengths and weaknesses of issue preferences and of the candidates advocating these positions. It’s little wonder candidates don’t see much utility in these while the media embraces them as tools to generate headlines.
This is no accident. Understand that the traditional media steadily have lost control over dissemination of information about campaigns and elections, and therefore their power to influence and garner prestige thereof of shaping information about political campaigning. Televised debates can shore up this erosion by increasing the media’s relevancy, not just for the broadcasters but also those not in television who cover the affairs
Except as gaffe-making machines, there’s little these debates contribute to a vast swath of the electorate. Almost all of its members never will watch one, and without the production of gaffes many never will feel any impact of them at all, for they will not pay attention to whatever narratives these the media will attempt to relay into the larger culture. Meanwhile, there’s a hoard of information out there about the major candidates for governor, often more incisive and informative on issues and candidates than what gets gleaned from debates, ripe for the taking. And even if your interest in the contest remains several magnitudes below that for the Saints, so many campaign communications fly about you can’t help but pick up on the major issues involved.
Change from the current free-for-all, have-as-many-as-you-can-with-whoever-shows-up debate structure will do little, if anything, to improve the mass public’s decision-making in elections. As such, when one perceives calls from the media to reform this, they argue not really for the public’s benefit, but in their own self-interests.