August 9 is primary election day in Hawaii, so televised political debates will begin very soon. If the past is any guide, that is not a good thing unless you have an exceptional sense of civic duty, an enormous capacity for boredom or your remote is broken.
So many of these past debates have been tedious, even embarrassing. The good ones are few and far between.
Typically, Hawaii’s debaters make the most basic elemental mistakes. They don’t know how to face a camera. They are robotic, fearful, and fail to make contact with their audience. They often look strained and exhausted. They use their notes too much, and their final statements are meandering and dull. The debaters rarely say anything they haven’t said many times before.
This is not rocket science or even political science. It’s high school speech class. The candidates perform like a C-minus speech class student or a professor who scores 1.0 on the Rate My Professors 5-point scale.
Why do our political debaters do so poorly? After all, they are public officials who spend their lives speaking with the public.
These mistakes are so elemental that it is tempting to think that the candidates do not take debates seriously enough.
In fact the opposite is true. The debaters fail because they, like the rest of us, take the debates too seriously.
Candidates exaggerate debates’ importance and consequently fail to take advantage of the valuable opportunities debates really do offer.
That bad prof and the I-don’t-give-a-wiz speech student see what they are doing as a chore or a duty — an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
They make no attempt to connect with you, and this lack of enthusiasm is contagious. You get the feeling that they would rather be somewhere else, which makes you feel like you too would rather be somewhere else.
What Hawaii’s debaters in fact feel is different. It’s not disdain and disinterest, but rather angst and fear, resulting in a buttoned down, deer-in-the-headlights demeanor. Because the debaters are so afraid, they make amazingly stupid elemental mistakes. They are so worried about their appearance that they forget to check their fly.
During every election cycle there is a tremendous hype about debates as if they are the center of the campaign. This buildup is not surprising. It is in the media’s interest to do so.
There is also so much buildup because debates have a cultural resonance going back to the (no doubt partially mythical) time when public officials battled over their ideas in a town square full of interested people. Think Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in those small 19th-century Illinois towns.
“Mr. Lincoln, why should slavery be abolished? You have 60 seconds.”
But that’s not what debates are today for three reasons. First of all, Hawaii’s TV debates, like most others, are not really debates at all but rather very limited interactions between candidates in a tightly controlled environment.
Think Lincoln and Douglas at podiums distant from one another giving short, time-limited answers to questions read by reporters from the Galesburg Republican Register and the Galesburg Daily Mail:
“Mr. Lincoln, why should slavery be abolished? You have 60 seconds.”
Second, the extensive research on debates consistently shows that they are almost never game-changers. Debates are just a small part of the huge number of things that affect a race’s outcome and, overall, a rather inconsequential piece of the puzzle.
Third, the people who watch debates are those least likely to be swayed by them. Compared to the rest of the electorate, debate watchers tend to be older, with relatively high incomes. They are more politically interested because they are more partisan. Debate watchers tend to be longtime party loyalists. Their basic ideas are firmly in place, and not surprisingly so are their candidate preferences.
So while debate watchers can learn a great deal from the debates — for example, studies of presidential debates show that a significant percentage of viewers have positions that are inconsistent with those of the candidates they support — this new information does not change their minds about which candidate will get their vote.
Maybe that takes some of the drama and heft out of debates, but they still are an essential part of a campaign, especially if debates focus on what they do best.
Debates resemble other things in a campaign, like yard signs and sign waving. They may not have much of an impact, but if a candidate does not do them, she’s in trouble. Refusal is seen as a sign of arrogance or not caring, and that could cost votes.
But debates carry more cultural significance than waving signs because — think Lincoln and Douglas for the final time — we have historically recognized the nobility and importance of the gesture. Debating is a civic duty.
Hawaii’s debaters typically act as if they equate civic duty with civic burden.
Burdening the debates with unrealistic expectations leads the candidates to see the audience as a problem, a gaffe-trap. (Motto: what can I do to keep from screwing up?) And the more candidates worry about blunders, the worse they perform.
But debates can do more, especially if candidates approach them in ways that remove the yolk of fear and instead focus on the fact that TV debates offer a unique and very important opportunity for storytelling.
To make debates better, candidates need to see them as storytelling performances. Debaters should see themselves as actors telling stories.
A debater’s guide to a good debate should be the same as an actor’s guide to a good performance.
What makes a performance engaging and convincing? The actor’s first job is preparation, but that’s just the beginning. The rest, the heart and soul of a presentation, is making the connection with the audience.
That makes opening yourself up to the audience a key part of the preparation. There is no way to separate what you present from the way you present it.
The setting can’t be seen as an impediment. The actor needs to use the lights, set, stage and audience to enhance what she is trying to do. You can’t fear the audience, and you can’t fear the camera.
“The camera loves me, baby” may sound arrogant, but as a debater’s rule of thumb, it is a whole lot more useful than ”I wish I could keep that stupid thing out of my face.”
Most of all, the performance is about telling stories. If the actors can’t take the material and make it into a convincing narrative that connects with the audience, the show’s over and the play closes.
Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” is about the economy, but what makes it come alive are the wrenching, real lives of Willy, Biff and Happy.
Political debates are a series of mini-plays where the good performer takes an abstract idea or a general question and converts the answer into a specific story.
It’s the difference between a pat answer like, “In my administration we allocated for education…” — which any interested citizen could get from a campaign brochure — and, “So you want to know how to make schools better, let’s look at what Ala Wai School did,” which uses the uniqueness of the debate setting to connect with individual audience members in a concrete, particular way.
The pat responses is generic and by the numbers. The story-oriented approach is harder, but it is more thoughtful, more appealing, and more useful.
Is this approach to debating a good test of the candidate’s authenticity? After all, it’s acting. Let’s turn the question around.
Is what you see in debates now, where intelligent, otherwise verbally skilled people turn into boring, fearful robots an authentic presentation of their true selves?
Does their frightened wallflower demeanor do anything to convince you that they are authentic?
In politics or in everyday life, is lack of emotion and fear of reaching out and connecting a good thing?
It is more important to see how politicians act when they try to reach out to people than it is to see how politicians behave when they fear them.
Why are stories important? (When people try to make this argument, they often try to dress the argument up by using the word “narratives” instead of “stories.” No need.)
Because stories are the fulcrums of our political life. We make sense of most our world, not through first-hand experience but through stories and our assessment of the people telling them.
So debaters, all the world’s a stage, and that’s a good thing. It frees you up, and it encourages you to demonstrate the kinds of skills that are really important.
I’ll be watching. Maybe.