Reading the newspapers recently, we’ve been struck by how similar the presidential debate commentary has been to commentary about “Monday Night Football.”
After the matchups in this year’s “debate season,” political pundits criticized President Obama’s “prevent defense” and “two-yard runs down the middle.” They talked about how Mitt Romney “spiked the football.”
And football wasn’t the only sports metaphor invoked in the coverage. On Tuesday, “CBS This Morning’s” ticker about the previous night’s debate read “Final Face-Off,” while ABC’s “Good Morning America” heralded the “Final Debate Duel.” And the Los Angeles Times headlined with “Obama reverses roles, comes out swinging at Romney in final debate.”
Zero-sum, take-no-prisoners sports talk has not just seeped into our political talk; it dominates it. The post-debate discussion, on TV and in our homes, was more likely to focus on which side won the 140-character Tweet fight than on the deeper values, priorities and visions articulated by the candidates.
Voters have been transformed from active citizens to spectators, and the two parties seem happy about it. As Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen told the New York Times: “I think for the base, much of this is theater. We know who we are for, but we need to see great performances because it helps us spread the word that this is a ticket worth buying.”
So are presidential debates forever doomed to be just another excuse to gather friends, family and other partisans around snacks and beer to enjoy the show?
We hope not. Political entertainment does little good for the voters or the country. Despite the troubling dumbing down of our political campaigns and news coverage of them, we believe that at heart most voters still tune in to the debates because they want to understand how the candidates will address the most challenging and important issues of the day.
But form must follow function.
As mediators whose professional lives are devoted to teaching others how to listen more effectively to each other and engage in genuine dialogue, we had high hopes for the second presidential debate’s town hall format. We thought it might compel both candidates to respond directly to questions from undecided voters, substituting thoughtful conversation for the kind of hand-to-hand, tit-for-tat jousting of previous debates.
But combat was what the candidates had trained for, and combat was what we got. By the time the first question from an undecided voter had been answered, the citizen/voters in the room had been relegated to mere props in the candidates’ epic battle.
On Monday night, when the candidates sat next to each other at a single table for the last time before the election, there was one more opportunity for a constructive engagement on the issues. But with pre-debate hype framed in win-lose terms and the pressure of endless postgame scorekeeping looming, the candidates were intent on getting in the one-line sound bites they’d almost certainly prepared in advance. Romney accused Obama of making an “apology tour” to the Middle East, a region that has experienced a “rising tide of chaos” on Obama’s watch. Obama repeatedly accused Romney of inconsistency. “You’ve been all over the map,” he said.
One big problem with setting up the debates as sporting events, with time clocks and winners and losers, is that the ability to “win” such a contest has little to do with the essential qualities for being a successful leader. An effective president needs to be able to engage in dialogue, not argument; to negotiate and persuade rather than browbeat; to listen respectfully and to embrace good ideas from across the political spectrum.
Perhaps next election, we ought to reframe and retitle these important national events as “presidential dialogues.” Candidates should be asked to model a productive, positive discourse for the American people. Disagreement is a necessary part of political dialogue. But it doesn’t have to produce winners and losers.
Thomas Jefferson knew that public exposure to national dialogue might be an effective vaccine against a concentration of power. To that end, in 1778, he introduced “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” The preamble acknowledged that even the most conscientious of governments gets sucked into power struggles and proposed that the only check was an educated electorate. Jefferson envisioned broader public access to education as a way to “illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.” Jefferson believed this education would prepare people to identify perversions of power and engage fully in national conversations about their own individual rights.
Today, it is widely believed that most people have no interest in or attention span for the kind of engagement Jefferson envisioned, that the general population can’t understand the complexities of Social Security or the tax code and much prefers sparring matches.
But our appetites are shaped by what we’re fed. A “presidential dialogue,” modeled on a dinner-table conversation between two neighbors with shared hope for a better community but competing visions for how to achieve it, could bring us closer to the original intention of political debates. Dialogue evokes images of engagement and respect rather than winning, losing and scorekeeping. Such a shift might even change the expectations and tone of the commentary to follow. Dialogues, after all, are neither won nor lost.
Imagine what it would be like to see two candidates aspiring to high political office able to engage in such a difficult conversation despite their divergent and conflicting views. The approach might even trickle down, inspiring the rest of us to model it when discussing issues with our own neighbors, friends and even our foes. Now that would be a debate worth watching.
Robert C. Bordone is a professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program. Heather Scheiwe Kulp is a clinical fellow at the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program.