Electoral debates offer a rare moment of transparency

I like the campaign debates. I watched most of the Republican primary matchups, even after they got repetitive, and I find the current flight of televised faceoffs riveting.

Yes, I realize the candidates are drilled relentlessly to suppress whatever capacity they retain for spontaneity and to make sure candor yields to calculation. But I figure even intensive coaching can only do so much. Pro football teams train exhaustively too, but the games always test them in unexpected ways. As heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson put it, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Once the bell rings and the action starts, you’ve got two contenders fending, parrying, explaining, attacking, and at some fundamental level, revealing the quality of their minds and the nature of their aspirations.

Better still, the whole undertaking rests on the wondrous idea that voters aren’t idiots. Why bother debating unless everybody accepts the notion that voters listen, they follow arguments, they can distinguish sense from foolishness and, above all, they may even allow their conclusions about who “won” the debate to guide their votes?

The problem isn’t with the debates, it’s with most everything else in the campaigns. The debates are grievously marginalized. Whatever illumination voters might get from them is snuffed out by the unstoppable mudslide of paid propaganda, and the quadrennial welfare check—estimated at nearly $3 billion this time—that parties and patrons write to our commercial media, chiefly local TV, so they’ll carry the generally deceitful, emotionally toxic assaults on honesty, patriotism, integrity and character that inundate pivotal states.

One huge dimension of electoral advertising that I hadn’t known about was recently the target of a sobering expose by ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative reporting team. Their focus was the surge of money from so-called social welfare groups. In the world of big-bucks givers, the super PACS (political action committees) have drawn much of the public attention as ad funders, but they have actually been outspent by these social welfare nonprofits.

The thing is, that’s not what they’re for. These nonprofits get tax breaks, which Continue reading “Electoral debates offer a rare moment of transparency”