Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > The Presidential Debate: Myth versus Myth

Oct 4, 2012

The Presidential Debate: Myth versus Myth



I wrote this before the Obama-Romney debate:

The debate that will pit the two candidates against each other will also show us two fundamentally different ideas of government going head to head. I don’t mean the Republican versus Democrat ideas. I mean something much bigger than that.

We have debates because we have a long tradition of democracy as an exercise of reason. The people learn the facts, analyze them thoughtfully, and then draw rational conclusions about which policies will benefit them and their community most. That’s the myth of democracy -- myth not as a lie, but a story we tell ourselves to express our most fundamental assumptions about what life is like and how it should be lived.

This myth of democracy requires candidates to present facts and logical arguments to the people and then let the people decide on the basis of their own logic. To help that process along, candidates should engage in classical debates, the kind we learned about in high school: each side presents a sustained, coherent argument based on facts and rational analysis. Then each side gets to pick apart the other side’s facts and reasoning systematically, point by point.

Of course that’s not what political debates do in 2012. They haven’t done that for a long time. The modern presidential debate started with Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. It’s no coincidence that theirs was the first presidential contest held when virtually all voters owned televisions. Since1960, the debates have been, above all, TV shows -- infotainment at best, and sometimes nothing but sheer entertainment.

What we remember most about that 1960 debate is nothing that either candidate said, but the poor make-up job that left Nixon looking like he’d forgotten to shave.  The words we remember most from later debates are not substantive ideas but entertaining one-liners: Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” or Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” They gave us a good laugh. They were great theater.

We should not laugh at the notion of government as good theater. It has its own rich mythic tradition. The eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz, studying the pomp and ritual of the royal court in medieval Java, called it the “theater state.” It’s a concept that goes far to explain government in every empire and monarchy -- and very possibly in our contemporary version of democracy, too.     

In the “theater state,” the main job of the ruler and his or her court is to keep performing a traditional set of ritualized public performances. As long as they keep performing properly -- the theory goes -- the society (and, it’s often believed, the whole world) will keep on running in its smooth, orderly, eternal pattern. So the pomp and pageantry are not just the trappings of power; they’re the essence of power.

The royal court is housed in a magnificent capital city to send the mythic message that the court is the splendid center of a splendid society (and again, it’s often believed, a splendid world). As long as the court maintains its perfect structure without fail, the whole society (and perhaps the whole world) will maintain its structure too. All will be in balance as long as the center is in balance.

So nothing -- not even the worst disasters, human-made or natural -- may be allowed to perturb the implacable equanimity of the ruler and the court. No matter what happens, the show must go on.

The “theater state” has been around ever since the first little city-states were born in the river valleys of China, South Asia, and the Middle East. Compared to its ancient heritage, democracy is hardly more than an infant. The “theater state” has had those thousands of years to permeate culture everywhere in the world -- including, it seems, the United States. The pomp and pageantry of the White House have grown rich enough to be at least a clear echo -- and occasionally, it seems, a rival -- of the great royal courts of the pre-democracy era.

In the 1980s it struck me, being no fan of Reagan’s policies or politics, that he was a poor president but would make a wonderful king. That’s when I started thinking about what the American people really want from their ruler. To what extent do they want the reassurance that comes from seeing and hearing the same ritualized words and behaviors, over and over again, in a well-acted political theater? There’s no way to quantify the answer. But there’s no doubt that we still live, to some degree, with the age-old legacy of the “theater state.”

And nowhere is it more evident than in the presidential debates. The candidates are judged, above all, on how well they “perform.” Barack Obama clinched his 2008 victory, I believe, during the “town hall” style debate, at a time when there were serious fears that the horribly wobbling American economy might collapse entirely. John McCain wandered around the stage rather erratically, looking like confused, somewhat befuddled old man. But Obama kept himself stationary and poised, with that perfect basketball player’s posture, looking completely calm and centered. “Make me the center of America,” his body seemed to say, “and you can feel reassured that our familiar structures will endure.”

In tonight’s debate the candidates will be judged, above all, by how well they entertain us and even more (though perhaps unconsciously) by how well they communicate the reassuring sense of orderly structure that the “theater state” was designed to give.

Ultimately, though, it may not matter who “wins” the debate. The most important message of the debate may be the comforting fact that our political system is once again performing its familiar ritual, perfectly organized down to the last detail. What both sides hope for most is that the debate comes off “without a hitch” -- and that it gets very high Nielsen ratings. Presidents come and go, but the “theater state” endures. 


I wrote this after the debate:

The myth of democracy did put in a brief appearance tonight. Each candidate gave us a whole series of little logical arguments, compressed into soundbites. But the part of the myth that requires thoughtful debate, with every point subjected to sustained, careful logical exploration, was predictably missing in action.

What we got instead, again predictably, was a fine display of the “theater state” in action. The familiar ritual did come off “without a hitch” -- so much so that many observers found it a rather dull affair.

So who “won”?  

Full disclosure: I am an occasional local volunteer for the Obama campaign, so my personal preference is obvious. But I agree with many of the pundits that Romney came off better than expected. He certainly showed more energy than the president, and he got the benefit of appearing to stand up to the “leader of the free world” as an equal.

Of course no one doubts that the president can show as much energy as Romney, and probably more, if and when he wants to. But tonight he never went on the attack. Nor did he play defense. In almost every case, when his opponent hurled potentially damaging charges at him, he simply ignored them.

Perhaps Obama was just “off his game.” But his campaign organization is a pretty shrewd calculating machine that so far has shown impressive results. So it’s worth considering the possibility that his performance was a deliberate choice.

After describing Obama’s demeanor as “grim/uninterested,” Washington Post political analyst Chris Cilizza concluded: “My guess is that Obama and his team made the calculated decision not to hit Romney” because “a) it wouldn’t look presidential” and b) the Democrats’ relentless attacks on Romney have “already penetrated deep into the political consciousness of the electorate.”

Looking presidential means always remaining centered, never losing your balance, remaining at all times the regal actor-in-chief of the “theater state” whose equipoise does not merely symbolize but actually creates the equinamity and balance of the societal structure. Let others do the attacking and defending, raising tensions and stirring destabilizing conflict. The president must remain implacable, unmoved.

 The challenger is obliged to do a certain amount of attacking and stirring conflict. Romney appears personally prone to be full of stresses that he is constantly trying to repress; when he defends against others he often appears to be fending off his own inner tension, too. At least that’s the way it looked to me, tonight as always.

So perhaps Obama intentionally chose his placid demeanor to bring out the contrast between his own imperturbable official status and the excited agitation of the challenger. Perhaps it was a calculated strategy to give the impression that dethroning him would mean overturning the order of the “theater state” and ushering in a new era of frightening chaos.

If most viewers get that impression, it would add one more negative mark to the long string of negatives with which the Obama campaign has tarred Mitt Romney. To achieve that goal, though, the president had to refrain from reminding viewers of all those other negatives. He and his strategists had to count on those others to be in the air, working the way television always works: subliminally.

This may be a charitable interpretation. But this was only act one. There are many scripts that can be played out effectively by the actor-in-chief of the “theater state.” In the next two debates we may well see a rather different Barack Obama, which would tend to bear out the view that tonight’s performance was indeed a deliberate choice.

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