Why should there be election debates? - Blueboard by Arjan Aguirre

March 19, 2019

To many people, ‘election debates’, is a means to inform voters of how the issues of the day are framed and discussed by candidates. The exchange of ideas that happens between opposing candidates is supposed to reveal information that voters need especially in knowing and evaluating candidates—what they stand for, what their plans are, among others. Equipped with this knowledge, voters are said to be more capable of making informed decision of who to vote for or not.
Broadcast debates, are assumed to amplify this function by allowing people to hear or see the actual discussions between candidates on various pressing issues. For more than four decades, the use of communication technologies, in particular, television, in election debates, has been an effective means of disseminating information. With more and more people who are tuned in their television and radio, election debates have become one of the sought-after moments in a campaign period.
What is an election debate? What is its purpose? Why should we care about it?
Election debate, first and foremost, is commonly understood as one of the campaign events that allows candidates (and even parties) to engage their rivals, on various controversial issues that may likely affect their policy proposals, legislative agenda, platforms, among others. It essentially comes from the old practice in Ancient Greece where people profusely talk about opposing views on a particular topic in their city-states. Later on, Roman Senators, medieval scholars, and modern politicians appropriated this practice to shape and determine the legislative agenda, political frameworks, among others.
Debates usually entail three things: the systematic way of arriving at a claim or logic, art of public speaking or oratory, and the creative use of words or rhetoric. In election debates, appearance or the projected image of a person adds new dimension to the debate by giving emphasis to image, gestures and body language vis-à-vis the claims in the debate.
Its purpose is two-fold: first, it gives the candidates the opportunity to have a stage to introduce themselves to the public, to know their opponents, vilify a fiercest rival, etc.; second, it allows voters to examine the candidates or parties by observing how they behave, their platform, programs, etc. Election debate is major part of the campaign where candidates and parties are forced to learn also about their opponents. Voters, on the other hand, are given chance to have a closer look at the candidates and their parties apart from the typical campaign ads, jingles, posters, etc.     
The advent of new communication technologies, such as radios, television, brought a new dimension in the election debate because of the entry of media as the ‘moderator’ of this political event. Since the time of the first televised election debate (between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960), the media has become the constant ‘gatekeeper’ of issues, framings, discourses, interpretations, among others, of an election debate. This phenomenon has created a new reality called ‘mediated politics’. Mediated politics happens when the perception and understanding of the people are heavily influenced by the media (broadcast or printed).
Most of the scholars today (from Political Communication such as William Benoit, Stephen Coleman, etc. and Political Science like Alan Abramowitz, Andre Blais, etc.) agree that the effects of mediated politics in an electoral practice such as election debates are mixed, complex and multifaceted. The information that come from these broadcasted election debates, according to them, do not automatically lead to an informed voting (other factors include confidence, disposition, etc.).
The view that election debates is a neutral ground where real exchange of ideas really takes places is erroneous and misplaced. First of all, they are performative displays that can be predetermined and rehearsed. The debaters will definitely say what they think the people would want to hear from them. Media people can also make use of this event as a way to favor their preferred candidate or vilify their unwanted candidate.
Second, this is candidate-centered event that tends to limit the discussion to issues, framings, interpretations that are alien to most people. The discussion between the candidates and the media actor, far from educating the people, tends to impose their views or understanding to the people.
Third, as a campaign event, campaigners tend to reduce this as a mere electoral fanfare where candidates are forced to simply comply to this imperative. In this situation, debaters or even media actors are not prepared for the debate or completely not aware of the things to be debated upon. 
Voters should really care about election debates because there is something wrong with how we practice this age-old tradition in politics. Election debates, just like any debate, always need an audience for feedback or participation from the people—to applaud or approve/ to reject or rebuke a claim. It should become a dialogue between the voters, candidates and the media where we can also inform the candidates and media about our issues and sentiments.
Arjan Aguirre (aaguirre@ateneo.edu) is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University. He handles courses on Politics and Governance, History of Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theories, Electoral Reforms in the Philippines, and, Social Movements and Civil Society. He also works as Consultant for Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) and Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB).