I feel a little guilty saying so, but nothing makes me so glad to be something other than USian than election season. I’m certainly not saying that Canadian elections are spectacular displays of democracy in action, but as with most things we do, the volume on the bullshit is not turned up quite so high.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, those debate things cannot be anything but interesting. The chance that somehow, a discussion, a dialogue, a debate might accidentally emerge underneath all of the performing, and the inevitable ways that what one politician hopes is a throwaway comment will generate thousands of words of analysis and hundreds of barbed pictures (in this case “women in binders”). Before the second debate, Charles Pierce said:

It is the last stand for spontaneity, the last possibility of a human moment before both candidates climb back into their bubbles and bounce across the landscape the way that white blob on The Prisoner used to do it. It will be the last chance for flesh and blood before the election roars to its inevitable conclusion as a bloodbath of decimal points.

What is even more interesting to me is the dynamic of interaction, which Deborah Tannen discussed this week in the NYT. Because no matter what, that is almost inevitably revealing. Who is allowed to interrupt whom, when, and how? What is seen as a transgression when it is performed by the female moderator vs. by Mr. Romney vs. by Mr. Obama? How do their reactions become themselves part of the performance? Obama saying “I’m used to being interrupted” reads, to me, like a scathing commentary on disrespect from his political opponents. And I’d be gasping right along with the audience when Romney said “You’ll get your chance in a minute. I’m still speaking”, and making a whole pile of links to broader processes of Romney’s infantalization of Obama.
Which is really just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to talk about in the debates. There is always flesh and blood in these conversations if you’re looking for it.

Debates and Political Performance


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