You Won't Learn Much From the Debates
But you should watch them anyway.
How do we fit so many viewers' enthusiasm for the debates into the picture of their inadequacy as an information source?
The late scholar James Carey once proposed a distinction between what he called a "transmission view" and a "ritual view" of communication. The transmission view—with which most of us usually operate—holds that the purpose of communication (including presidential debates) is to impart information, much as Stanton described. In contrast, the ritual view—"a minor thread in our national thought," Carey noted—treats acts of communication as rituals like holidays or parades, deriving their meaning from the roles they play in our daily experience. They summon forth or reinforce feelings, dispositions, and attitudes. The campaign events of the 19th century that Stanton breezily denigrated may not have educated voters, but they enriched their daily political experience.
Stanton, it turns out, had it backward: The debates matter because they resemble the rallies and torchlight parades. Indeed, only if we discard the dominant view of today's debates as a source of information about the candidates' programs and think of them instead as a civic ritual can we appreciate their real value: a reminder of the pleasures of the campaign, as a social glue, as a spur to political involvement.
One piece of evidence comes from a project called Debate Watch. Starting in 1992, the National Communication Association and the Commission on Presidential Debates set up Debate Watch to bring together citizens in local communities to watch and discuss the contests. Although no hard verdicts are in, evidence suggests that joining in these colloquies inclined people to vote on Election Day. At the least, they appeared, as one scholar of the project noted, to "engage voters in the ideas, perspectives, and concerns of others in their communities." The post-debate conversations tended to invigorate those who took part, reviving a sense that politics and the election matter.
Soon after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, marveled not about Kennedy's superior image—the story line from those contests that we remember—but at the more basic phenomenon of renewed voter excitement. "Overnight, as it were," he wrote, "there was born a new interest in the campaign that earlier had been productive only of coast-to-coast somnolence."
The choreography and sound bites that constitute the presidential debates may be an unreliable method for casual voters to get the facts about the nominees. But in an age of desiccated politics, when too many citizens feel adrift and overburdened in trying to judge complex policy issues for themselves, the mere experience of watching debates, or in discussing them "the next morning," as Gould wrote, "in kitchen, office, supermarket and commuter train"—such time spent can have real value if it serves to thicken our commitments to political life.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.