Friday, April 25, 2014
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American Presidential Beauty

NEW YORK – What is the point of a presidential debate? In the context of American presidential elections, “debate” is something of a misnomer. When former French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, that was a debate – addressing substantive issues and lasting more than two hours. By contrast, presidential debates in the United States are more like staged performances, where the answers to every possible question have been rehearsed endlessly with teams of coaches and advisers.

The candidates in US debates address carefully selected journalists who rarely follow up on a question. And the candidates’ performances are scrutinized less on the substance of their arguments than on their presentation, body language, facial tics, unguarded sighs, smiles, sneers, and inadvertent eye rolling. Does the candidate come across as a snob, or a friendly guy whom one can trust? Do the smiles look real or fake?

These “optics” can be of great importance. After all, Richard Nixon’s race against John Kennedy in 1960 is said to have been lost on television: Kennedy looked cool and handsome, while Nixon scowled into the camera, with sweat trickling down his five o’clock shadow. In his debates with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter came across as smug and humorless, and Reagan as a friendly old uncle. Carter lost.

In 2000, Al Gore, was unable to make up his mind about which role he wished to play in his debates with George W. Bush, so he looked shifty and inauthentic, changing from arrogant to patronizing and back again. He had the better arguments, but he lost the “debates” (and the election) nonetheless.

We are told that the debates this month between President Barack Obama and the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, might decide the election. It is, according to the pundits, Romney’s last chance. If Obama comes across as an elitist professor, he might lose. If Romney gets angry, or makes a bad joke, his chances could be blown. Again, this is not a question of who has the best policies, or the soundest ideas; it is all about presentation.

More than 67 million Americans watched the first of this year’s three debates. According to public-opinion polls, only about 17% of eligible voters have not yet made up their minds about which candidate to support. That is surprising, given the widening political gap between America’s two main political parties. In private, Obama and Romney may be able to agree on many things. But the Republican Party has moved far to the right of Obama’s moderate liberalism, and Romney has been pulled along with it.

Then there is the great unspoken factor of racial prejudice, something even hard-core right-wing Republicans try not to express openly. A certain percentage of American voters will not vote for a black man, whatever he says, or however good he looks in a debate.

If policies or prejudices have not persuaded that undecided 17% of voters, they must be looking for something else. They want to see whether they like one man better than the other. To them, one can only assume, the debates are nothing more than a personality contest.

In past elections, when there sometimes really was not much political difference between Democrats and Republicans, this made a certain sense. Broadly speaking, on economics and foreign policy, the candidates often would be in accord, with Republicans more inclined to favor the interests of big business and Democrats defending the interests of labor. So voters could not always be blamed for finding it hard to make up their minds. Since they could not make a rational choice, they followed their instincts and voted for the candidate they found most sympathetic.

This time, there seems to be much less justification for such arbitrary choices. The political differences are too stark. And yet there is a reason not to dismiss the personality contest entirely. After all, the US presidency is a quasi-monarchical institution, as well as a political one. The president and First Lady are the king and queen of the American republic – the official faces that the US presents to the outside world.

It is not utterly absurd, therefore, that voters want to like the look of their presidents, quite apart from the merit of their policies. Choosing the country’s most powerful politician on the basis of his presentability on television might seem arbitrary, even frivolous. But it is no more arbitrary than the accident of birth, which determines the right of kings and queens to reign over their countries.

The difference is, of course, that most modern kings and queens are constitutional monarchs with no political power. And the man whom US voters choose to lead their country will affect the lives of everyone, not just Americans. Because non-Americans cannot vote in US elections for him (a pity for Obama, who would probably win a global vote by a landslide), we have to depend on the judgment of that 17% of undecided voters watching television this month.

That is not exactly reassuring. But the American republic has one merit that monarchies lack. Good or bad, the quasi-king can be booted out every four years. Then the competition – part ideological, part beauty contest – can start all over again.

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  1. CommentedPartha Sarkar

    “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
    As Churchill identified correctly, and several others have agreed to, the greatest threat to democracy comes not from the “commies” but from the collective ignorance of the electorate.

    Leaving aside the racially, ethnically, or religiously prejudiced, who exist and will continue to influence any selection processes democratic or otherwise, the people need cognizance to choose wisely. However the problem is that the overwhelmingly large majority of the electorate is ignorant of the problems, complications, and the required compromise that any of the significant policy choices presents. To be cognizant would require significant amount of time, motivation and intellect to comprehensibly research the critical issues at hand. Then and only then, the electorate will be able to sift through and understand what is a hollow campaign rhetoric versus what is an intelligent argument in favor of or against significant policy choices.

    Having failed to spend enough time doing their own research and having being barraged with half true, half false information, opinions and biased views from media agencies, who in turn are working towards objective of shaping people’s mandate towards a desired (for that media agency) outcome, the undecided electorate uses the debates often as a first attempt to evaluate the candidates. Being unable to objectively evaluate policy choices, ideas and facts from an analytical and logical perspective, people then resort on instincts and tend to intuitively evaluate candidate’s responses based on subjective decision making criteria such as content delivery, confidence, passion and emotional responses to the subject of the content. The unsurprising outcome is that the presidential debates retrograde to “beauty pageantry”.

  2. CommentedMark Pitts

    The author is correct in pointing out that some people would never vote for Obama because of his race. But it should also be pointed out that many will vote for him due to his race - many "liked the idea of" an African American president, and many don't want to vote against America's first African American president.

    Just another aspect of the beauty contest. Style over substance at any cost.

  3. Portrait of Christopher T. Mahoney

    CommentedChristopher T. Mahoney

    What could Mr Buruma possibly mean by this sentence:
    "Then there is the great unspoken factor of racial prejudice, something even hard-core right-wing Republicans try not to express openly."
    The clear presumption is that the Republican Party is crypto-racist. This might come as news to Herman Cain, Allen West, Tim Scott, Artur Davis, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, to cite a few names off the top of my head. One would certainly hope that one could vote against the Democrats' candidate without being labeled a racist. That is ad-hominem and short-circuits even the possibility of reasoned debate.

  4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    This practice is actually more absurd and frivolous than it seems.
    Two main reasons:
    1. At least when we look at European monarchs we know they are there to play the circus without any executive powers. In the case of the "American King" everybody pretends that he is some "Superman", flying on Air Force One, capable of miracles, changing the course of the nation and the world. Presidents have always been figure heads, and today they are more puppets on strings than any time before. We watch it live how the presidency is actually "bought" on the money of powerful interest groups, donors, who then in turn control, influence most of the important decisions.
    2. Although the whole election campaign and mystical tale about the President is focusing on the person, his life and character, his smile, fashion sense or taste in music (or beer), in today's global, interconnected world there is no single person who can cause any meaningful change, not even small group of people or whole governments, senate, or any other decision making body on national level.
    Our lives are controlled by multiple supra-national events, connections, processes, and the largest countries are just as dependent on these issues as the smallest countries.
    The US might be the largest cogwheel in the system, but it is still interlocked with all the other cogwheels nevertheless, and if the smallest cogwheel far away breaks, gets stuck, the largest cogwheels stop as well.
    We get daily reminders of this principle each day of the worsening global crisis.
    So we are "enjoying" a reality TV show drawing to conclusion very soon, but it has no relevance to our actual life, a global, interconnected system is based on the laws of all or nothing, individual characteristics, brilliance or evil has no meaning any longer.

    1. CommentedDeb Palmer

      Your comment hits home, Zsolt Hermann. Sometimes I wonder whether people are voting with a similar mindset as they would in an episode of Big Brother....- that is, it is pointless and meaningless, and just a show. I am apprehensive of the outcome of the election, because no matter which candidate wins, the show will be over and everyone will have to get back to 'real life'. Then the proverbial sh** will hit the globalized fan.

    2. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      I am impressed, Zsolt Hermann.

      While the democratic revolution strengthened the role of the representatives and undermined the power of monarchs, even within a monarchy usually we find the tendency to limit the ability of the monarch to do wrong by a strict court protocol and the ethos of his mandarines. Ideally a monarch could be a dog. In the United States the fundamental issue is unbalanced Federalism and unresolved constitutional legacy. From an outside perspective it would be appropriate to install five regional governments between state and federal level.

    3. CommentedC Medansky

      Excellent comment Zsolt Hermann! One can only hope that 17% are undecided because they are growing weary of the illusion, as well as the escalating crises, and more interested in exposing the machinery behind the curtain because as Professor Marvel said in the Wizard of Oz: "There's a storm blowing up, Sylvester -- a 'whopper', speaking in the vernacular of the peasantry."

  5. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    You get the feeling that maybe Barack Obama doesn't really believe in the traditional Democratic party positions on the economy, jobs, and growth. He seems always too ready to concede the correctness of Republican positions, their validity. Almost as if the Republican party positions are correct.

    Did anyone in his administration seriously study Roosevelt's New Deal? Sure doesn't look like it.

    To get pushed around by someone of Romney's caliber on national television? What next? (I know--we'll extend the Bush tax cuts yet again to avoid protracted controversy. So easy, so soft, so seductive, so wrong.)

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