Presidential debates: To entertain or to educate?

Without any doubt, last week’s presidential debate, the second in the series authorized by the Commission on Elections, was a watershed in Philippine politics. It set a new tone for political discourse by allowing the contenders for the country’s highest position to break the basic norms of civility and courtesy in a nationally televised conversation. It privileged the expression of personal animosities above the sober articulation of policy differences. It prioritized entertainment over information, and traded political legitimation for the cheap thrills of reality television.

This is not the fault of the television station that hosted the event. There was already a strong hint of this pivotal shift in the first debate that was organized by another station last February. Entertainment is a dominant value in the operative system of the television industry. Unrestrained, it can easily trump the need to inform even in programs ostensibly devoted to public affairs.

This is rather the massive failure of the Comelec, whose duty, among others, is to protect the dignity of the electoral process of which the presidential debates are an important component. Let me explain.

At least three different motives are at play in these debates; they are not necessarily in accord with one another. The first is the Comelec’s expressed wish to deepen the public’s understanding of the choices facing the electorate. The second is the candidates’ desire to effectively project themselves before a huge television audience without having to pay for expensive TV airtime. The third is television’s primordial intent to produce and sell a program that is as entertaining as it is informative.

The clear winner here was television. It got what it wanted: a gripping and entertaining show where, in an atmosphere of relentless provocation, the presidential candidates were virtually goaded into baring the rough edges of their souls. Viewers were surely amused by the show, forgetting that this was not its professed goal. Expecting to be bored by a predictable debate in which scripted lines are delivered in a high-minded tone, they were instead treated to a bare-knuckle brawl reminiscent of those reality shows where ill-mannered members of the same family savage one another on national television.

Of course, in theory, it is a candidate’s choice whether or not to succumb to the dynamics of a no-holds-barred verbal combat. In practice, however, the choices are limited. Some are comfortable with this format, ready to spew crude and mocking one-liners at the hapless objects of their ire. Others get tongue-tied in the face of ad hominem attacks, although, in a moment of righteous anger, they may unwittingly allow themselves to be drawn into a visceral fight they cannot hope to win.

But what benefits can politics itself possibly get from its trivialization as entertainment? Is the television exposure that is given free sufficient compensation for the further decline in respectability that the nation’s political class must suffer in the process? Or has Philippine politics sunk so low in the estimation of a cynical public that it cannot possibly go down any lower? To answer these questions in any sensible way, one must begin with an understanding of the function of politics.

The main function of politics is to serve as society’s mechanism for the production of collectively-binding decisions. The issues are nothing to scoff at: Should we prepare for war? Should we allow foreign armies to set up facilities on our soil? Should we lower taxes, reimpose the death penalty, pass a divorce law, legalize same-sex unions, build more coal-fired plants, lengthen the period for basic education, etc.? These are just some of the hard policy questions that our elected leaders are expected to wisely decide for us.

The political system requires legitimacy in order to ensure the broadest public acceptance of its decisions. This resource comes in the form not only of reasoned justifications for decisions taken, but also of a reservoir of social esteem for the leaders who must make those decisions in our name.

What happens when we begin to view the nation’s leaders as though they were no better than street toughies given to impulsive action and careless words? To better appreciate the import of this question, perhaps we only need to feel the despair that many thoughtful Americans today feel over the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. As if recovering from a deep stupor, they now ask: Is this the man who will lead us, and represent the United States in the world community? To be fair, it has to be said that American media have been critical of Trump. But they forget that they were also instrumental in the glamorization of vulgarity and demagoguery in which Trump seems to excel.

I am aware of the excuse that presidential contests are equally a test of character. That a debating match in which the protagonists are permitted to directly insult one another offers a good opportunity to assess a candidate’s behavior under intense pressure. But, I wonder: In such situations, how much value do viewers place on sobriety and reasoned argumentation as against the ability to spontaneously retaliate or comically deflect an attack?

This leads us back to the question: What is the principal purpose of a presidential debate—is it to entertain or is it to educate?

* * *