Presidential Debates... Then and Now

Earlier this week we saw the first Presidential debate of this election cycle. The next debate in less than two weeks away. But there's a long history of debates we can all learn from.

The concept of debate dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. The heyday of political debate in the U.S. lasted from when our country was founded through much of the 19th century. Originally debate on the floor of legislatures directly informed decisions on policy. Debaters focused on particular questions and limited the audience they were addressing. These settings imparted a natural discipline to the speeches given within them, encouraging substance. Eventually these debates left legislative venues and took to the road and public but remained way more focused than what we see today. Think about some of the more famous debates in our nation’s history. For example, when Lincoln and Douglas debated back in 1858 for a senate seat. That was a series of daylong exchanges in various towns. Whereas in modern televised debates, a candidate often has just 90 seconds for an answer, those debates gave each speaker 90 minutes for a single response – the same amount of time the entire debate required earlier this week! Audiences stood all day to listen. Debates today are still supposed to inform us on the candidate’s positions on issues but I'm not so sure they do or at least that's not what we seem to focus on today.

But back then audiences were much smaller, statements were much longer and specific, and of course the debates weren't televised. Those are differences that virtually changed the entire composition of debates. The Nixon-Kennedy debate was the first televised on back in 1960 and is said to be the reason Kennedy won, because he translated better to television viewers. People who listened on radio actually thought Nixon won. Optics began factoring in and mattered. When he ran again in 1968 against Humphrey, Nixon refused to do TV debates and won. But even then, televised debates didn't become the norm until 1976 when Carter debated Ford. 2008 is when technology took another step and voters began submitting questions to the candidates on YouTube. More recently Facebook, Snapchat and other technology's been used including live viewer tweets we saw during this recent debate. These changes impact how the candidates play the debates and how we perceive them. Some experts back in 1960 said televising the debates would have dangerous implications and even corrupt the process. Maybe they were right. The impact of social media remains to be seen.

These changes and our correlating attention span (cause or effect?) are specifically impacting today’s Clinton-Trump debates, begging the question how we, as viewers and voters, can we remain vigilant and focused on what matters in terms of what take away?

For starters we can leverage technology and watch the on-line fact checkers as we watch the debates. According to most the candidate’s (and in particular Mr. Trump) arguments are littered with incorrect facts, certainly a trait we don’t need in the Oval office. Back when debates still lasted days, the public for the most part obtained their information from transcripts published after the fact. Nowadays, we can instantaneously access these transcripts on-line. And doing so can be tremendously helpful for anyone who wants to peel away the drama and posturing and read what the candidates actually said. Are they answering the questions specifically, eloquently and with focus? Or instead responding to questions they wish they’d been asked?
Perhaps the biggest change is that we now have a woman debating. Countless psychological studies show that men and women alike subconsciously attribute female candidate facial expressions and demeanor as internal emotion, but male candidate facial expressions and demeanor as a response to the situation. In the context of debate, that oftentimes translates to a woman making stern-looking facial movements being perceived as angry or upset, but a man who looks the same way, being perceived as focusing on the important matters.

“Manterrupting,” the phrase being used to describe Trumps forty some-odd interruptions of Clinton (in comparison to Clinton’s on interruption of Trump), is, likewise, consistent with the research. Even school aged boys are show, in study after study, to interrupt women and girls eight times more than girls interrupt boys.

Women who violate these and other gender expectations are generally subconsciously perceived as unlikeable and, sometimes even unpredictable or untrustworthy. Most of us recognize gender stereotypes when they’re blatant. But when stereotyping is subtle like this, almost all of us unknowingly succumb. To test yourself, take a moment to think about how you would perceive Trump if he behaved like Clinton. And vis-a-versa.


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