Political debates, while often poorly conducted, still have relevance

    In this country, voter turnout borders on pathetic. There are a number of reasons for this shameful show of apathy: too little time, too little relevance or simply too little initiative. Whatever it is that causes the majority of the American populace to take this right for granted, anything that could breed more passion among the electorate should be strongly encouraged.

    Political debates, when conducted effectively, could be just such a stimulus. Although it’s been quite some time since they did so, one candidate taking on another in a display of verbal skill has the potential to provide important information and inspire more involvement in an otherwise indifferent constituency.

    Of course, political debates are by no means the cure-all for a complacent public. Even with political events filling 6 o’clock broadcasts and daily papers, the majority of those eligible to vote probably don’t know or care enough about those who represent them in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., to take time away from watching their regularly scheduled programs. Furthermore, when debates diverge from their initial purpose, like the recent Bill Simon-Gray Davis debacle, they actually detract from helping any potential voters.

    In the case of the aforementioned debate, instead of addressing the real issues, the two candidates instead proceeded to attack each other, skimping on anything of importance. Inquiries about taxes and environment were brushed aside with the vague language of a seasoned politician and businessperson — hardly the honest and open candidates that Californians deserve. At their worst, televised political debates can end up alienating voters and ruining any chance of renewed public interest.

    But despite the potential embarrassment of a boring and ineffective exchange, political debates can foster some interest that otherwise would not be aroused. Especially in presidential debates, the first glimpse the public gets of candidates is often on television. Not only can people hear for themselves the platforms and positions that candidates take, but they can glean much about the character of each candidate as well.

    A classic example is the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960. Where Kennedy appeared cool, calm and collected, Nixon was haggard, worn out and clearly unable to withstand the pressure of an intense verbal fray. Televising the debate allowed the masses to see politicians at their best and their worst.

    Barring unfortunate instances in which both candidates come off as unsavory (as in the Davis-Simon debate), the political debates can serve as an important factor in determining preferences and helping undecided voters. In these cases, when the candidates actually do get down and dirty on the issues that matter, the difference between each candidate and party can be elucidated. As a result, voters can have a more solid background before going to the polls, while others can have a stronger push to go vote at all. The coverage, in combination with the endless analysis and discussion among cable and broadcast news talking heads, can help inform those who were previously uninformed or unclear about the issues and stances of the candidates.

    The democratic process in this country is far from perfect, but it will remain that way until citizens finally decide to stop taking the privilege to vote for granted. Political debates can be an extremely useful tool in helping citizens weigh their choices, make a decision, and ultimately show it on election day. After the Florida recount fiasco of 2000, anyone claiming their vote doesn’t count should be tarred and feathered, or at least given a withering look.

    Debates can be improved and appear more like a informative discussion instead of a formalized grade school spat like the Simon-Davis debate if people start taking them more seriously and using them for their original purpose: to inform. Ignorance is the most dangerous characteristic a voter can possess — it leads to electing candidates that are unworthy, unqualified and even unwanted. Political debates can contribute to a less ignorant, perhaps even more interested voter population. Then perhaps the excuses for declining to vote will lessen, starting with the most discouraging claim of all — “”I didn’t know.””

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