I was recently asked who I thought had “won” the Presidential debate last Friday. Now that’s a dangerous question. I answered that I couldn’t answer. A flurry of inquiries followed: Did you watch the debate? (yes); Didn’t McCain do well? (yes); Didn’t Obama outspeak his opponent? (yes); Weren’t McCain’s stories easy to understand and digest? (yes); Didn’t Obama come off as a statesman? (yes). But, you see, none of those things matter. And I’m not talking (entirely) from personal opinion.
According to the BBC, voters are usually decided by the time the debates occur (“Do presidential debates sway voters?” 9/24/2008). In fact, since polls have been in service to politicians (and therefore statisticians), presidential debates have caused average absolute changes in candidate support of less than one percent. So, in the grander political game, we can argue about the qualitative aspects of the presidential debate (what impression did it make?) all we want, but the quantitative evidence isn’t there to back us up. But, while that shows us why who “won” the Presidential debate is an unfounded question, it hardly answers why the question itself is dangerous.
The danger lies in the assumption that politics is a game in which one side wins or loses. First, the sides are defined only by those in the spotlight. Americans are not pre-sealed in Republican or Democratic packets, to be opened and counted at election time. Americans exist, I would argue, in an amorphous blob — sometimes voting here, sometimes voting there. The appeal, however, is that it’s easy enough to think of the Presidential election as a race: Who’s ahead in the polls; Who will the winner be; How can he catch up; Do we have enough for the last leg; My God! This election has been a marathon. But the metaphor is counter-productive. In national governance, there is no finish line. The polls may close, a winner may be announced, and celebrations may ensue, but the fact is that on November 5th, we’ve only found the beginning. The Federal Government churns on, the bureaucracies lumber forward, the lawyers keep speaking, the diplomats keep negotiating and America goes back to not caring whether it was a pig or a pit-bull that wore lipstick.
This is not to say there isn’t change — because the head of state certainly exercises control over the body. New philosophies permeate the government as bureaucracies find new directions, lawyers find new words, and diplomats find new negotiations. It is the implementation of those new philosophies that is the true essence of the presidential election, but our current system glosses over that fact by focusing so heavily on the “race” that isn’t.
Perhaps even more detrimental to our system is the analogy of a binary debate with winners and losers. Now, when I speak of “winners” and “losers,” I am not referring to the candidates — it would be insane to suggest that we can’t differentiate between the winning and losing candidate. What I am suggesting is dangerous is the idea that this election is a sort of competitive debate in which all Americans (or the 50% of us who vote) are pitted against each other, either on Side A or Side B – one of which will be a “winner” at the expense of the “loser” (no matter how much an artificial division, even within The Maroon-News political commentary section, seems to exist). Instead, we’re all on Side C, trying to decide which way to go or which philosophy to follow. If Side A is elected, Side B voters aren’t left behind. They don’t lose. They still exist, they still have rights, they still have political and social expression, they have another election around the corner.
Instead, I suggest we see elections as conversations. I suggest that you don’t get caught up in the race and instead be willing to open yourself to new ideas, open yourself to discussion, open yourself to change (of a non-rhetorical kind). There are many options for you. Colgate Votes 2008 is coordinating a multitude of election events.
Go to the DebateWatches on the 2nd and 15th in ALANA. Go to the catered Theta Chi debate party on the 7th in Donovan’s Pub. Discuss foreign policy at SLF’s Forum on the 28th. Register to vote with SAVE or Democracy Matters. You can’t lose.