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Azeem Ibrahim

Azeem Ibrahim

Posted: March 8, 2010 12:24 PM

Televised Political Debates Dumb Down Democracy

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For the first time in its history, Britain's general election this year will be preceded by televised debates. We have quite simply never done it before.

But in the run-up to the debates, I am struck by the way there seems to be a consensus that the debates will do wonders to revitalise interest in British democracy, which has been ailing for decades now. Everyone seems to agree that the debates are a good thing.

These kind of arguments are everywhere in Britain at the moment. Debates, apparently, are the cure our unhealthy political system needs. They will inject a dose of glitzy competition into our stale old electoral process. That they will help voters make a better democratic choice.

But personally, I don't believe any of the hype. These arguments are wrong, for at least three big reasons.

The first is simply that party leaders' debates measure the wrong qualities. When John McCain or Barack Obama squared off against each other in a TV debate, ever viewer came away with a personal opinion of each candidate. If you watched the debates, you'll probably have felt this yourself. But step back a little, and ask yourself what these opinions were based on.

When we watch TV candidates talk, most of us base our feelings about them on qualities which have nothing to do with whether they would be a good leader or not. We measure how fluently they speak, how genuinely they smile, and how sincere they seem. We notice that one seems to have done his policy homework while another has been badly briefed; one seems to have taken media presentation classes and knows to look directly into the camera, while the other splits his attention between the cameras and the studio audience. We compare their demeanours: do they seem shifty like Nixon in his famous TV debate against Kennedy, or slick like Clinton against President Bush senior? Do they pause too much? Do they hesitate and reach for unfortunate words? Are they ugly?

In short, TV debates, far from encouraging a democratic choice, encourage us to judge the leaders in politics with the values of Hollywood. The danger is that in the minds of many viewers, cogent policies take second place to whiter teeth or a stronger jawline.

These are the wrong qualities by which to measure potential statesmen. Being likable doesn't necessarily mean you're a good manager of people or a team. It doesn't mean you have the skills to manage gargantuan projects like reforming schools or working out how to pay off the national debt. It doesn't necessarily mean you're honest. But most of all, it doesn't mean you have the leadership qualities to lead a political party, let alone a country.

The second danger of TV debates is that they give politicians a set of perverse incentives. In the long-run, if party leaders' debates prove to be a regular feature of British democratic environment, it would change who succeeded in politics, and who decided to enter in the first place. Imagine the front ranking opposition frontbencher, with decades of work and experience behind him, forced to conclude he was under-qualified to lead his party because he lacked a full head of hair. Or the shadow cabinet team, waiting to listen to speeches by two leadership contenders, knowing before either candidate has stepped onto the podium who they will vote for as leader by looking at their faces alone. These are the kind of incentives that TV debates encourage, and they are bad for politics and awful for governance.

The third reason is that TV debates are part of the process of dumbing down. If we want leaders who can ensure the security and well-being of the country, then we shouldn't choose them based on how they look under TV lights. If we want politicians who take smart decisions based on sound principles and an honest reading of the evidence, then we shouldn't choose them based on their ability to smile.

There is perhaps one counterargument which we should consider, and that is the value and virtue of political oratory. Back in 2008, Barack Obama's presidential campaign - remember that? - showed how even in the age when the compacted communications of Twitter and texting seem to be the norm, good political oratory can still lift hearts. Surely a Party Leaders' TV Debate in Britain would provide a golden chance for talented party leaders, now and in the future, to shine? Maybe even to inspire?

There are two answers to that. The first is that the best oratory comes from speeches, not debates. The public will watch a speech hoping for poetry, but at a debate, they want answers. Whereas speeches are an opportunity for scale and scansion, debates demand quickdraw putdowns. Where speeches lend themselves to vision, debates demand accuracy. In short, however much Britain might want to foster British politicians who can inspire like Obama did on the campaign trail, TV debates are not the means to do it.

The second answer is that Britain already has one of the best venues for political oratory any politician could wish for - Parliament. Steeped in a rich history of great orators, like Gladstone, Bevan, and Churchill, not for nothing is it called 'the mother of Parliaments'. That it is rarely watched is surely an effect of mundane oratory, not its cause. No TV debate in a hastily-assembled television studio could match it as a readymade televised invitation to young politicians to polish their oratory. Rather, TV debates are likely to bring the political debates down into the mud, and encourage politicians to serve us pre-cooked gags and laugh lines.

TV debates may be good for the TV channels which want them. They may even be fun. But they are no good for British democracy.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Fellow at the International Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, a World Fellow at Yale, and a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy Understanding.