Debates: It’s About the Voters Not the Politicians

Phil Noble

by Phil Noble

‘Tis the season – the political debate season.

About this time every four years, politics is focused on the presidential debates. It’s a big deal, and it should be.

The problem is that we seem to get it backwards; debates should be about the voters, not the politicians. And politics would be a lot more interesting for the voters if we put them first in this process.

Let’s start with a little history. Presidential debates are actually a fairly new invention in US politics. It was only in 1960 with the Kennedy – Nixon debates that this grand tradition began. Before this, the candidates didn’t generally actually meet and debate; there was lots of back and forth by surrogates and supporters but generally there was no direct interaction between the candidates. It was only with the 1960 election, with two young candidates and no incumbent in the race, that the debates were held via this fancy new box in our living room, i.e. television.

As any student of politics now knows, the fact that the debate was televised is what made all the difference. The popular history, which is more or less true, is that Kennedy understood the new medium, used makeup, looked youthful and handsome – and won. Nixon, as the story goes, needed a shave, thought makeup was for sissies, sweated a lot, and just basically look shifty-eyed throughout the evening – and lost.

The second part of the accepted history of the debate is that those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won because he was sharper on the issues and more substantive. Those who watched on television thought that Kennedy won because he looked better.

There is lots of room for historic debate and discussion as to what actually happened that evening in 1960 but one fact is beyond dispute: the televised debates changed American politics forever. Ever since, virtually all candidates for most any office are expected to debate their opponent, at least once, and the debates are usually covered by or even sponsored by, the local television stations and newspapers. This is a good thing.

However, once the Kennedy-Nixon debates launched the age of television politics, things began to gradually deteriorate, to the point where we now are mired in the age of money politics (mostly to buy TV ads). Early on, reformers said that television politics was a good thing because it allowed the candidates to communicate directly with the voters without having to go through the traditional party bosses and the old party structure. Initially that was so, but now the new party bosses are the sleazy lobbyists and corrupt special interests that write the checks to fund the ever more expensive campaigns.

We have reached the point today that our politics – both in Washington and Columbia – has become almost totally corrupted by special-interest money, and the pliable candidates that chase it, nearly full time, to fund their campaigns and support their political lifestyle (see Bobby Harrell’s airplane).

Now that things have become so corrupted by money, we need to look at a new model.

My humble suggestion is that we in South Carolina go back to an old model; the model of multiple, face to face debates in all 46 counties. In the old days, pre-television, all the candidates for statewide office would travel the state on a pre-arranged schedule and debate on the court house steps in each county. They were real live flesh-and-blood debates and there was usually as much give and take with the not-always-polite audience as among the candidates themselves.

This was not about poll driven, consultant tested sound bites. It was about real people running for office and facing other real people who were being directly asked for their votes. With 46 debates, one in each county, there was no place to hide; all the candidates had to stand on their own two feet and respond directly to their opponents and the voters.

I am not so naïve as to expect that the negative ‘”television parts” of the campaigns would be totally negated by these 46 debates, but TV’s influence would at least be diminished somewhat. And it would force the journalists to get out from behind their desks and computer screens and actually cover politics – and the voters – instead of just watching the campaign ads.

Both the local newspapers and the local county party organizations would love this too, as they would be assured that all the candidates would come to their county at least once and the debates would inject some political interest on the local level.

And, most of all, it would be good for voters. Maybe they would simply be attracted by the “political circus” but if that’s what’s needed today to get folks off their couches, then so be it.

I am enough of a ‘little d’ democrat to believe that the more people get involved in the process, at whatever level, the better. Much of what’s wrong with democracy can be fixed by what is right with democracy – people’s involvement.

Who knows what could happen if more people actually got to see and question these politicians. Maybe they would have to listen to us for a change and pay a little less attention to the corrupt money boys.


Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform to politics and government in South Carolina.

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