October 16, 2012

Taking Politics Out of the Arena

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In the midst of an election year, there is no shortage of debates to be had on campus, locally and nationally. Many Cornellians have been viewing the Presidential debates with great interest and eagerly await tomorrow’s debate between Rick Santorum and Howard Dean.

In viewing and partaking in such discourse, we often find ourselves rooting for a candidate or set of positions to the point where the debates become sporting events of sorts. Unfortunately, we rarely stop and consider whether this emphasis is misplaced and counterproductive. As students in an academic setting, we have a responsibility to instead promote discourse, discussion and learning in ways the general public has all but forgotten this elections season. We can start tomorrow in Bailey Hall.

It’s hard not to be disappointed by the current public discourse surrounding the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates. The overwhelming focus remains on which candidate “won” by best articulating their standard rhetoric and rebutting that of the other candidate. Further attention is paid to image, gesticulation, expression and conveyed attitude. When the substance of a candidate’s assertion is indeed discussed, it’s usually in relation to the statement’s questionable validity. In many respects, we actually expect the candidates to flub the truth with the goal of “winning” on a point. Only sporadically do we pause during a debate and discuss the relative merits of points presented.

Of course, a large part of the problem is the debates themselves. Candidates are fully aware that there is no standard of accountability for their statements, and make little effort to be honest, direct and substantive. Instead, they go on the attack. The American public knowingly tunes into what can only be described as theatre, for its entertainment value. For most of us, there isn’t even a semblance of knowledge or intellectual value ascertained from the series of debates this October.

At Cornell, discussions surrounding the election thankfully haven’t revolved around political theatre. Nevertheless, the underlying adversarial tone of the debates permeates. Sun coverage has highlighted predictably partisan reactions to the debates on campus. We, like mostly everyone else, go into the debates and election rooting for our candidate of choice and, sometimes more intensely, against the other candidate.

I myself have succumbed to this tendency, as noted by my tweet on the front page of last Friday’s Sun. Seeing my words printed next to a Democratic donkey not only reinforced my aversion to Twitter but also alerted me to the fact that the competitive environment surrounding the election has precluded valuable discussions from taking place. I had been following the election not with the aim of learning about the country and its needs, but instead with the objective of winning, whatever implication it had.

I continue to wonder what we aim to get out of the debates, both those of the candidates and the ones we have surrounding the election. Surely, it isn’t new information or a better understanding of the nuances of issues or platforms. Instead, I fear the debates manifest our competitive instincts, not just those of the candidates.

I find myself watching my TV this elections season much as I watch Cornell hockey games from the first row of Section B. The competitive attitude serves me well in Lynah but not the polling booth. The stakes are far higher for me as an American citizen than as a hockey fan this fall, and thus the election deserves a more sophisticated, objective attitude on my part, and yours too.

It would be far more productive to use properly conducted debates as conduits for productive discussion. A good model is Cornell Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative, for which I am a fellow. The aim of Ask Big Questions is to bring diverse groups of students together to answer questions which everyone can answer and has a stake in, with the hope that participants learn about themselves and others. In order to facilitate conversations, the other fellows and I use “objects” such as videos, pictures and short literary pieces to stimulate reactions and productive dialogue.

If Presidential debates were conducted with a modicum of respect and presented as forums for earnest dialogue, they could function as objects for discussions on values, convictions and viewpoints. While they have so far failed to serve this purpose, perhaps tomorrow’s on-campus debate between Rick Santorum and Howard Dean will. Dean and Santorum are friends, and while representing very different political persuasions, they have little to gain from dishonesty or deception, as there is little at stake for them. So, I anticipate this debate will offer more in the way of substance than our Presidential and Vice Presidential ones have this October.

I highly encourage all Cornellians attending tomorrow’s debate to treat it as a small opportunity to show what political debates and discussions should represent to the American public. Don’t go in with the intention of supporting one of the two men, or with a closed mind. Instead of cheering or jeering, spend your time thinking. Treat the debate as an object for a discussion on more critical, “big” questions. Don’t think of Dean or Santorum as “winning;” only you can win or lose, contingent on whether you gained something in the way of perspective. And in future elections, we as the American public can win by demanding accountability on the part of candidates and treating their statements not as entertainment but the subject of valuable discussion. And that’s not malarkey.

Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg