The Great Debaters
"So, who won the debate?" I’ve been in the States for almost three weeks as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, and this question is the currency exchanged with every hello. It is an introduction formula, everybody’s first choice to start a conversation. It provides access to the conversational playing field, letting you know an American’s favorite team. Although there is much talk about undecided voters, I haven’t met any during my Marshall Memorial Fellowship journey—a trip that has taken me from East to West, from Washington, to Memphis, to Durango, to San Francisco. Maybe this is why people think that the debates between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will not alter the vote in the long run. But what can people really expect from presidential debates? Here are some suggestions from someone who has watched the American presidential debates closely, but with the distance and perspective that comes from hailing from a foreign country: my native Romania.
1. Debate is an American sport above all. The practice of debating has a long tradition in the United States. American children are taught in school how to talk, how to argue, and how to persuade. In Romania, however, tradition requires us first to listen, then to refrain from speaking to avoid uttering nonsense. This cultural difference is best expressed by the Romanian phrase, "if you keep your mouth shut, you might be considered a philosopher." In the United States there are fewer philosophers at hand. Americans are used to talking, and debaters compete like athletes.
2. It’s not about the debate, it’s about appealing to the core constituency. Aware of the huge audience, the two candidates adapt their personae to the public’s demand. Although they constantly talk to the American people during the debate, each candidate’s main objective is to lure out their voters first. In turn, viewers expect their favorite candidate to inspire and to mobilize them. Emotion prevails, replacing a genuine exchange of ideas.
3. The debate is pure entertainment. This is a tacit agreement among the politicians, the public, and the media. The public expects one of the two to win by a gesture or a memorable formula. Details like the lighting in the studio, candidates’ makeup, or the position of hands, are critically important in the eyes of viewers. I watched the second debate from a bar in San Francisco. Next to me was a lady vividly experiencing the event as if watching a Giants’ game: "C'mon, Obama, you can do it!" A few screens away, several kids were watching a football game in the same style. Given these observations, it was unsurprising that media in the US approached the debates the same way as the Romanian media would have done about our own political debates. The day after the second American presidential debate, during a meeting I attended at the San Francisco Chronicle, reporters talked intensely about Romney’s "binders full of women" comment. Politicians structure their discourse around a few key phrases or words. Then we, the journalists, highlight these memorable expressions or gaffes-- to the delight of a public that professes to want substantive exchange, but responses to entertainment above all else. This emphasis on keywords and phrases illustrates how Americans and Romanians are very similar. Indeed, three years ago, the President of Romania had his fate sealed during the final debate with a crowd-pleasing rhetorical stunt. Though he had a slight advantage, the Social-Democrat candidate collapsed when the acting President used his silver bullet: "Where were you last night?" With a Hollywood-worthy flourish, the Social-Democrat was forced to reveal that he had visited one of the Romania’s moguls, a convicted felon, whom he asked for advice on how to prepare for the final debate. Such a scene may seem exotic and surreal in democracy as professedly moral as the American one is.
The final Obama-Romney confrontation did not reveal a similar surprise that settled the score in the last round. But that doesn’t mean that 50 million Americans don’t wait still for a silver bullet to strike. It doesn’t matter what side of the Atlantic you live on —we all enjoy some spectacle.
Florin Negrutiu, a journalist for the Romanian newspaper Gandul, is a 2012 Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.