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15 October 2008
Presidential debates as cultural artifact

They have been part of American electoral politics for centuries, though they used to be longer, less hedged about by carefully negotiated rules, and, dare we say, more substantive. The received wisdom says their modern transformation began when a youthful, burnished John F. Kennedy (who had refused makeup when Richard Nixon was listening, then accepted it when Nixon was out of the room) “won” the first televised debate—even though most radio listeners said he “lost.”

But however much debates, and candidates, have yielded to the demands of a visual age, they remain one of the few potential sources of genuine surprise in a political campaign. What do the debates make possible? Impossible or at least a lot more difficult? Perhaps most urgently, what new culture might we create to remedy some of their manifest inadequacies?

Post your comments below . . . keeping in mind that the topic is presidential debates themselves, not the merits of this month’s debaters.

1. What do presidential debates assume about the way the world is?

that people might change their minds or vote across party lines based on the strength or weakness of candidate arguments


That cultural change occurs from the top down (electing the “right” primary leader) rather than by individuals changing the way they think in as individuals (Rom. 12:1&2;)  changing the culture by living out Gods will on earth(Matt. 6:10).

2. What do presidential debates assume about the way the world should be?

that the ability to make rational arguments and speak seriously on any number of relevant topics should play an important role in our voting process.

3. What do presidential debates make possible?

though the candidates are certainly prepared and have notes,  we still get to see the candidates think, make facial expression, react, and then say something… that is a pretty unique and allows us to use the tools of reading body language in making our voting decision…. a tool we use a lot more often than every four years when pres. elections role around.

4. What do presidential debates make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

I don’t know…. for someone who is really ugly to get elected, maybe.

5. What new culture is created in response?

A new way of performing protest has arisen in this last series of presidential debate—on Wednesday, a blend of motion, words, visual: the protest songs set to tunes from worship songs, extravagant home-made signs and bright pink hats, the sight of IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War) marching in formation and then being arrested. Though I wonder how many have seen it, those who are present experience it and are affected by it, surely.


negative campaign ads that attack the weaknesses of each candidate. I do not know which one came first, presidential debates or negative advertisement but they seem to have a relationship.