Questioning Politics: The Role of the Debate


A highlight of any general election is the debates between candidates. But why?

Why should an hour or two of questions and answers be so important? What sort of substance can the voters gain from what is a tiny part of a far longer debate?  Is debate really important?

An undeniable fact of debate in modern electoral politics is that it stands raised on a pedestal. It is said that the best way the voters may make an informed decision is when their candidates go head-to-head when an ideology faces off another. What a great way to see which politician stands up to pressure when their opponent stands some few yards away.  But when we consider the question of why did this or that candidate win, the impact of debate comes under scrutiny.

With the US presidential election now at an end, the winner clear, and the defeated in denial, we are now left with a case to study. Donald Trump won in 2016 in a shock victory and his debating style contrasted heavily with Hillary Clinton. While Clinton was fatally predictable, Trump’s abrasiveness felt like a breath of fresh air to millions. They both lied, barely talked about policy, and had no substance. All that they could say to each that would be impactful was ‘the other is a horrible person.’

Although both were certainly horrible people, the way Trump spoke, his attitude, and his words seemed to reach enough voters across the USA in 2016.

2016 also represented the nearing demise of these TV debates. The first-ever US presidential debates, JFK vs. Richard Nixon (1960), attracted nearly 60% of US households. Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump attracted 43%.

Social media has slowly dismantled the monopoly held by television. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have become the centre of political discourse, with political campaigns spending millions on adverts targeting potential voters.

Reviewing Trump’s 2020 debate performance, it was horrendous. The majority of what he said was muddled, erratic, and embarrassingly abrasive. The host, Chris Wallace, had to raise his voice at both Trump and Biden so the debate could actually progress. In 2016, Trump belittled and shamed his opponents, yet this time around, he found himself unable to really do any harm to Biden.

Joe Biden, president-elect, was better than Hillary for one reason. Trump, whose first term has attracted so much vitriol and undeniably caused much harm, found himself playing the same position Hillary played in 2016; a representation of the failures of the past administration.

Biden was relatively sharp, considering his awful and blundering debate performances during the democratic primary. He was hidden away for most of his presidential campaign, occasionally giving campaign speeches. But this was not a surprise to most. His campaign for the nomination was on its dying legs until the Democratic Party Establishment rallied around him in fear of a Sander’s victory.

During his 1988 presidential campaign, Biden had plagiarised a Neil Kinnock speech and then, when discovered, dropped out. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he had called a fellow candidate for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, the first ‘articulate and bright and clean’ African American mainstream politician and proceeded to drop out from the race after the first primary vote in Iowa, winning less than 1% of the vote. He never was a good campaigner.

So did the debates impact the result? How much did the debates contribute to the fact Biden has won the most votes of any presidential candidate, in an election with the highest voter turnout in perhaps a century? Very little.

The Democratic Party, are likely to fail in winning the Senate and barely held on to their majority in the House of Representative, demonstrating a real apathy towards the Democrats. Biden rode on the coat-tails of his time with Obama, with people not really knowing or understanding what Biden will actually bring to the USA. The central quality of Biden’s attraction was the fact he was not Trump. Trump has been the source of so much vilification, and rightly so. The Democratic knew that, played it to their advantage, and won the Whitehouse.

If we look to our country, debates between the Conservative and Labour Party Leaders follow much the same pattern.

The debates themselves attracted fewer people than a Gavin & Stacy Christmas special. The debates were borderline boring, with the occasional interesting moment. Media coverage was a clearer indicator of who would win, with the Labour Party receiving overwhelmingly negative coverage as compared with the Conservatives. Hustings in individual constituencies are barely covered and attended, with perhaps a hundred or so constituents being in the room.  

Prime Minister’s Questions is an opportunity for all MPs to present questions to the Prime Minister every Wednesday at noon but, more than anything, it’s a completely performative demonstration of concern about the state of the Nation. The opposition MPs ask leading questions that demonstrate a failure on the part of the government while MPs supportive of the government ask questions that praise the government.

So what role does debate play in a modern democracy, if a victory is secured by other means? Probably a purely symbolic one, an essential part of the media circus.

The debate is more spectacle than a battleground of ideas. It is a tradition more than a politically decisive moment. When voters ask themselves, ‘why do I vote the way I vote?’ the answer rarely has anything to do with debates. When we ask ourselves, ‘why is it that the powerful are in power?’ the answer cannot be that there has been a thorough debate, as there never is one.

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