Politics is About Storytelling, Not Debates

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Politics is About Storytelling, Not Debates

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 5, 2012 | Comments ()


Fifty years ago, Nikita Krushchev spoke before the United Nations and famously stood at the podium, taking off his shoe and beating it in rhythm with his words as he declared that communism would bury the west. Every twentieth century textbook in American high schools has that image printed in the section towards the end of the year on the Cold War. JFK is usually giving a speech on the facing page. The fact is that Krushchev probably never did it. News organizations went back and looked, and there is no archived video of it happening. The sole picture of the event certainly shows the shoe in the air, but many of the eye witnesses at the event insist that a journalist stepped on Krushchev's shoe as the leader made his made to the podium, the shoe slipped off, and Krushchev merely picked it up and dropped it on the podium rather than trying to wedge it back on as he spoke. Others there insist that the pounding happened. And there are a dozen variations on the details in either camp. Forget historians trying to piece together what happened centuries ago. We can't even get a straight answer about a famous event with hundreds of living eye witnesses and a photograph.

No debate can ever resolve the facts of this. Every rationalization from one witness is countered by one from another one. One witness insists that Krushchev took his shoes off under the table and only managed to get one back on before he got up to speak. Another witness insists that would be impossible because Krushchev was too fat to reach under the table, and so she handed it too him. Another claims that both shoes were on when he went up, and the journalist stepped on his foot. Another claims he took the shoe off once he got to the podium explicitly to hammer it. No debate, no presentation of facts can settle this argument despite the fact that it must have an objective and simple answer. In the end, each witness falls back on "well, I know what I saw."

And last night, America had its first presidential debate of the season. You can tell it was about time because thanks to the Supreme Court declaring that anyone can spend any amount of money they want to on advertising, every other ad on television has been telling you that one of two people is trying to destroy the country. My mailbox is so filled with glossy mailers from various concerned groups of voters that it's difficult to find the Netflix envelope amidst the wreckage, which is what really matters anyway.

And as the debates arrive, the media hovers like vultures on the thermals, waiting to plunge down at the first sign of a gaffe. And how I hate that stupid and shallow word. It's like one of those retroactively hilarious swear words from sixty years ago like "golly" or "gosh" except refering to a self-damaging mistake. The word gaffe doesn't belong in politics, it belongs in descriptions of Three Stooges routines.

There's something to be said for gaffes as revealing some underlying truth of the candidates' motives or thought processes that has been covered up. The irony is that the more slickly packaged and pre-produced everything becomes, the more the coverage becomes about the surface appearance, the more hungrily we pay attention for someone to trip up. It's always a smug chorus that raises up from the other side, "Ha! Now we're seeing who he really is." And the defense is either to insist that it was a misstatement or to go all in and bluster that of course that's who he really is. We root for the other guy to slip up and tell the truth. But truth in half-glimpsed nuggets isn't any better than listening to lies.

And more to the point, if everyone has already made up their minds, if nothing can convince us millions of eye witnesses of politics to see something different than what we see, what are we watching for anyway?

I read a great speech once, it was one that a certain Law School dean gave every single year to the incoming cohort. What he said that stuck with me was that not one person in the audience should ever argue with their friends and family again if they valued happiness. Because they would win, every single time, because they were being trained to be world class arguers. And that did not mean that they were right. Being able to win arguments and debates does not make you right. It might be more civilized than declaring that the guy who hits the hardest is right, but being the guy who can argue the best isn't really any more of a measure of who is in the right.

And that's why the debates don't matter. Not because they're slick and overproduced bullshit, but because even if they weren't, even if they were about the issues, they wouldn't be meaningful. The presidential candidates holding an honest and spirited debate about the future of health care in the country wouldn't sway a single damned person more than the two of them trading barbs and oneliners for the same period of time.

But the reason isn't because people are stupid or ignore facts. It's that the facts in these matters cannot be agreed on any more than world leaders can remember what Krushchev did with his shoe. We are arguing about how we want the world to be, and while there are elements of that which we decide with our minds, most of that is a decision that we make with our hearts. Look at the polls today. Something like 80% of people say that Romney creamed Obama. I can tell you right now that Romney wouldn't get 80% of the votes if the election were today. There's a disconnect between winning the debate and winning the hearts.

It's something that the left has been ironically very bad at getting through their collective stubbornness, with the insistence that Gore and Kerry smashed Bush in their various debates and bemoaning the lack of that translating into swaying undecided voters. Debates don't fail to sway voters because voters are stupid, but because the voters are intelligent enough to get at least on a gut level that winning a debate doesn't mean that you were right, anymore than winning a fight does.

Do you know why the right wing has such issues with Hollywood? It's not the moral content of entertainment, not the guns and sex and swearing so vicious it makes your ears bleed. That might be the label they affix to it, screeching accusations of moral degeneracy. But it really has nothing to do with the morals. It has to do with the power of story.

This country has the most powerful entertainment industry in the history of the world. A thousand stories a day, blazing out onto the air waves and into the miles of cable. And the vast majority of them fall on the left side of the spectrum. Voters do not change their minds because of a thirty second ad, nor because of a thirty minute speech, but stories gradually change their hearts. Will and Grace normalized gays more than any amount of rational arguments could over the decades. And a dozen other causes followed the same trajectory.

I love the chess game of politics. I love the endless manuevering, the nitpicking of word choice, the subtle jabs and appeals to win a district at a time, to form an alliance if only for a day. I'm the political nerd who would have been happy with "West Wing" if Bartlett had never showed up in that first episode and Toby and Josh just played the game for seven seasons. The debates are supposed to be the holy grail of the political season for people like me. But it's easy to become myopic, to get sucked down into the tactical view and not see the long game, to only see the balls and strikes and not feel the rhythm of the innings. The story, that's the ball game.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Dragonchild

    I've had more than my fair share of career changes for my age. I've worked in various industries from education to health care to electronics; various jobs from tech support to design engineering to sales. I've been a volunteer, a salaried employee and a contractor. I've worked in red states, blue states, small towns, large cities. I've been a follower and a leader, parts of teams and on my own.

    Not once in any of my stops did solving a problem involve ANYTHING that's a regular part of politics. Most of this stuff would be considered a waste of time at best; a deliberate destruction of discourse at worst. I don't mean the elements of democracy so much as the techniques and expectations of modern campaigning. Debates? Talking points? These aren't meant to solve problems. It may sound obvious, but consider how numb we are to the fact that politicians routinely use tools we KNOW are OBVIOUSLY not meant to solve any problems.

  • mograph

    Tell people what they want to hear, and you'll win.

  • ,

    I didn't watch, I only read the subsequent coverage, so perhaps I missed it, but: Did anyone question Obama about the Solyndra fuckup, or the Libyan embassy fuckup or the Fast & Furious fuckup or ...

    No? Then I don't much give a fuck about the debate.

    But since we're thinking under think pieces here, I think the more I think about it the more disturbed I become about anyone who wants to be president, and probably a Congressman, or a governor, or pretty much any office above county commissioner (at least all of the ones who would LIKE to be president someday).

    I think there's something wrong with those people. Something very very wrong, something SERIOUSLY wrong.

    I mean, morally and psychologically. Consider: Anyone who wants to be president must -- absolutely must -- be willing to push a button and obliterate a city of 100,000 human beings, like Harry Truman did. Twice.

    On a lesser scale, you have to be willing to send tens of thousands of young men, your countrymen, some of whom haven't even had the privilege of voting in a presidential election yet, into a meat grinder like Afghanistan (or keep them there for four years). And, much more simply, you have to be willing to drop missiles from Predators 30,000 feet up onto Afghani kids (and in one case at least, a teenage U.S. citizen) who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then go pal around with Jay-Z and yuck it up with Letterman.

    What kind of cold motherfucker would sign up for that? What normal human being with any morals or qualms or a conscience could possibly do that? Do you have to be a sociopath to be president, or does becoming president make you a sociopath?

    That's not even to mention that you have to be able to smile at people and shake their hands and take their money and then fuck them if it gets you elected. Not even to mention that you have to be able to tell all manner of vile lies about your opponent with a straight face.

    I'm thinking Hunter Thompson wrote this in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail," the story that Lyndon Johnson in a tight Texas campaign suggested to one of his handlers that they spread a rumor that his opponent had been having sexual congress with barnyard animals.

    "Jesus, Lyndon," the underling supposedly said, "we can't call the guy a pigfucker, nobody will believe it."

    "No," LBJ supposedly said, "but let's make the sonofabitch deny it."

    Again, what kind of cold motherfucker wants that job that badly?

    I'm more and more convinced these people are sick. All of them. Congressmen jack up their own pay and vote themselves the best benefits of anyone on the planet while they reach deeper and deeper into your pocket to pay for it. These are people who take a dollar out of your right pocket, subtract a hefty overhead charge, put 50 cents back into your left pocket and then expect you to throw them a parade.

    Cold motherfuckers.

    And yet ... in the case of the president at least -- Obama, Romney, I don't care -- we seem and they know we seem to want them to act all warm and fuzzy for us. There are a bunch of people who will decide who to vote for based on who they think they'd most like to have a beer with. Have a beer with the fucking Terminator? Really? Jesus Christ, do we want that guy or do we want the Psychopath-in-Chief, a guy who would authorize a bullet through bin Laden's head?

    That's a question I'd like to see asked at a debate: Gentlemen, don't you have to be a cold motherfucker to want this job? Follow-up question: Is that a bad thing?

  • no one

    This debate was just on economics and domestic policy. Solyndra came up very briefly.
    The next debate (townhall style) is half and half domestic and foreign, and the last debate will be strictly foreign. Expect Libya and Fast and Furious to come up in both of those.

  • googergieger
  • pcloadletter

    It's a nice piece but when I read comments like this on Facebook: "I'm registered as a democrat and voted for Obama last year. In my personal opinion, Mitt Romney won the 1st debate and currently has my vote!" I have to disagree with Wilson when he says voters are intelligent.

  • Uncle Mikey

    Debates never matter when your guy gets hammered, do they?

    Gore didn't beat Bush in the debates. He tried to convey how much smarter he was and ended up looking like an asshole smirking and rolling his eyes. He squandered a huge lead during those debates. Inexcusable, and easily preventable.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Oh, look! It's G Greenwald talking sense! http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm...

  • zeke_the_pig

    Also - though everyone's seen it, here it is yet again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • John G.

    Romney "won" the debate because he got up there and lied. Saying I'm going to cut everyone's taxes, give them all jobs and end the debt sounds pretty good, just like screaming "American number one" can reach people in their lizard brain. If you promise to give every American a million dollars, they'll probably like that too.

  • Ginger

    Thank you for this brain food about what is truly the 'theatre' of politics.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Another claims that both shoes were on when he went up, and the
    journalist stepped on his foot.

    There's an additional witness story that Mr. Kruschev had a shoe in his hand and one on each foot as he walked away from his spontaneous display of passion.

    I don't think the question is to shoe or not to shoe. I think the point is that Kruschev threw himself a hissy fit at the UN to shut up somebody else he didn't much want talking. That's the "incident", whether good ole shoe was involved or not.

    It gets better ...

    Glossed over in this distracting minutia about whether Mr. Kruschev banged a shoe, banged someone else's shoe (Also - eeeeew.), carried a shoe, happened upon a shoe, or was handed a horse shoe, brake shoe or shoe box are some facts the witnesses agree on with supporting evidence.

    The then premiere of the Soviet Union, in the decorous halls of the United Nations, brushed aside another speaker on a "point of order" to engage in an enraged or pseudo-enraged diatribe, lengthy, vitriolic and personal, while pounding the podium before him. This was not the first, or last time Mr. Kruschev is reported to have behaved thus.

    Some reports say he broke his watch, such was his vigor. Nobody denies that he 1) interrupted the other guy 2) had himself a hissy fit and 3) gestured, banged, bonked and similar for emphasis, 4) was set off by mention of a particular declaration then pending before the general assembly.

    Oh, and here's the good part. The crappy internet movie declaration that generated such offense was 1) introduced by the Soviet Union and 2) mentioned by Mr. Kruschev when he spoke earlier in the same pow-wow, he later interrupted when the other guy tried to have a say. The delegate from the Philippines - you know, the guy from an actual colony working toward independence - in his turn to speak suggested that the "declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples" should also apply to peoples occupied by the Soviet Union. Specifically Eastern Europe. The place with the divisions of Soviet tanks.

    (This context is touched on in the NYT article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07...

    The NYT article says the Philippines delegate made a "speech." Other sources quote a brief statement, which was interrupted by Mr. Kruschev. Philippines-guy didn't have time to make a "speech", unless the NYT author knows something these other sources do not, BUT "speech" fits better with the story he's trying to tell, so what's accuracy in the name of a good yarn.

    Poor Mr. Kruschev apparently didn't much like someone else getting a say, too, especially to suggest that his own country might be held to the standards they'd proposed for others. Blame it on the staff work. They *meant* to put in a reverse statute of limitations - only occupations of sufficient age are deemed ripe enough for objection, or something.

    From *these* facts, one could tell a story about Mr. Kruschev objecting to an interruption to his country's little put-on morality play, with his shoe-banging, not-banging, horning, nailing or boiling incident a distraction instigated when they got caught out. None of this - the pseudo-Declaration, the interruption of protocol when things go awry, the later distraction with shoe-he or didn't shoe-he? - depends on whether Mr. Kruschev actually banged the podium with a shoe or his engorged member, or whether people interviewed had matching recollections 50+ years later.

    One could weave a story on the less - er variable? - facts about how distraction on questions of minutia pulls people away from the actual, widely agreed and BTW relevant story - occupied territories, colonies achieving independence, and a "declaration" sponsored by the Soviets in the UN that was pure Kabuki. (To this last I say - it must be Tuesday.)

    This is rhetoric 101. I wish to Godtoupus they'd teach this in schools, to maybe inoculate people from being so easily hoodwinked. It's like stage magic - it works until you see the mechanics, then it's obvious.

    Introduce some nit-of-contention and along with pulling the discussion away from something uncomfortable, you can slime the other guy (Left shoe or Right shoe - are Those Guys, so blinded by their ideology they can't help but lie about which shoe he banged? Also shoe-banging, those twisted freaks.) Long-term you make the other guys so careful in speaking they can't say anything & lose all poetry when they do.

    One might weave a story from this that the whole operatic cycle of declaration, hissy-fit & distraction was intended to shut down criticism of the Soviet Union's own, more recent imperialist actions by making the topic of "imperialism" uncomfortable for the West.

    Naaaaaah. That would be cynical, and besides has the wrong bad guys.

    You can tell it was about time because thanks to the Supreme
    Court declaring that anyone can spend any amount of money they want to
    on advertising, every other ad on television has been telling you that
    one of two people is trying to destroy the country.

    The deluge in your inbox is also, indeed mostly "thanks to" people who feel strongly enough about their positions to fund distributing political material. Even with 9 plus their staffs, I think the Supreme Court is mostly busy doing other things.

    Also, the case you refer to repealed a law to forbidding particular spending for political purposes by a particular class of organizations. I could weave a story that this legislation was only enacted because the people who pushed it through don't much like the people or positions being represented that way, but that would be cynical of me. I'm kinda pleased that the supremes stopped them from stifling unions with this law.

    I will be cynical enough to say that the timing of objections to super-PAC spending is ... convenient although not surprising. I mean, we've even seen a campaign loudly promise to use only the public / federal money, that is, until their "outside" money became more.

    It seems so many things are bad only when the other guys do them.

  • googergieger

    Oh and in the age of the internet, outside of the really, really old, how the eff does anybody need the news/debates/commercials/press conferences to tell them who to vote for?

  • no one

    That's just moronic. You are saying there is no value to seeing the two candidates standing next to and talking to each other?

  • googergieger

    Moderator: So what are you going to do to get the economy back on track?

    Romney/Obama: What am I going to do to get the economy back on track? Well I'm not going to do what my opponent will, which is sell puppies to China so they can put them to work. Instead I'm going to cut taxes, promote job growth, and support the middle class.

    Yup. Some awesome value there I tell you what. The pop culture talk shows our news has become gets value out of debates. American people? Well, I can see how some people could get value out of them. I can also see how I've sold things to people that clearly don't need them and would clearly be better off saving their money for something more essential or that they would actually get some use out of.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Internet? Is that this new-fangled thing you young people do with your computers? What is it good for? Watching porn and getting into trouble, right?

  • googergieger

    I had a feeling Romney was going to "win". I mean he had nothing to lose going in, so outside of yelling out racial slurs, he was probably going to win. Media needed him to win firstly. I mean who'd want to see an election covered that is all but over already? But ignoring that train of thought/conspiracy. Everyone already did call the election over, and had written off Romney. More or less. So outside of Obama crushing it, Romney just had to be slightly above competent in order to "win". What would help Obama was if the News and company would argue over what was said in detail. Who lied, who changed their positions, etc, the most. In any case, I doubt Romney is going to win this. I think he's done too much damage and outside of Obama having a break down, I don't see Mitt doing anything to win enough people to his side. The Ryan and Biden debate might matter a bit more, if the public decide they don't want Mitt, but the definitely don't want even the slightest chance of Biden. Ryan still looks and acts like a serial killer for me though. So who knows. In any case everybody can agree on that moderator being fucking turrible.

  • ,

    "Ryan still looks and acts like a serial killer"

    Interesting choice of words. See my lengthy rant elsewhere on this thread.

  • Raymond_Shaw

    "And that’s why the debates don’t matter."

    True as far as it goes, (not too far).

    At bottom, the 'debates' don't matter because our two Wall Street approved candidates are 'arguing' the same positions.

  • pcloadletter

    If Al Gore were president instead of George W. Bush, we'd have gotten the same thing?

  • Jannymac

    Probably. POTUS actually has little power domestically and most presidents...at least in their first term, continue the policies of their predicessors (sp? too tired to look it up).

  • The Other Agent Johnson

    Ugh. I find this lazy lament so tiresome. Arguing the same positions? Tell that to gays, or women, or immigrants, or the middle class, or teachers or union members or any number of other demographics whose lives can and will be directly influenced by who is in office.

  • Maguita NYC

    We all understand (for the most part anyways) that lobbyists hold politicians by the balls.

    What matters is the lobbyist squeezing your balls' expectations in return for his "contribution" in promoting and financing your election.

    A war in Iran? Pipelines through Western Canada? Denying your American Civil Rights?

    It is a matter of influence on your daily life. Especially if you're not a white man with a hefty bank account.

    A presumably heterosexual white man, preaching for the right religion, with a hefty bank account.

  • ,

    "Denying your American Civil Rights"?

    You mean this guy?


  • ,

    Just to be clear, is the downvote for me (killing the messenger?), the HuffPo writer or Obama?

  • GunNut2600

    Please do not soil the wonderful game of chess with a comparison to the American political system. Chess is a wonderful game that I will never be good at but at the high levels, its fantastic to watch. One of the few benefits of going to UMBC was getting to see world class players.

    Politics is the art of rambling on for weeks and not saying anything of substance. Billions are spent for a position that has very little effect on overall, day to day, life of the average peon. I survived Clinton, Bush I and II, and even a brain damaged Reagan. Obama round II or Oven Mitts...whatever...I don't give a shit.

    Now put a REAL crazy person in there, say Michele Bachmann, and I get get excited. Screw voting for the least worse...I say let's put a fucking chicken in the white house.

  • jen

    HA! I couldn't believe there hadn't been any mention of the debate yet. I took that to mean Romney really did win and you were taking the high road by not acknowledging it. Wow, it took some creativity to swing that around to the left bias that's so thick around here.

  • Maguita NYC

    Of course Romney won the debate, and Obama was rather surprisingly absentee. Since this site is decidedly to the left though, there will be nothing to celebrate.

    What exactly did you expect?

    Denial, over-reaching exaggerations, distorting facts and preaching in the name of a deity or another? None of that. To my knowledge, Pajiba is no extreme Right haven.

  • KonaKreep

    That's how I took the absence of any reference to the debate. Where was that bumbling, moronic, out of touch Romney we've been reading about here?

  • Horvath

    You mean the guy with the rictus grin who was completely inventing information that has since been proven incorrect by dozens if not hundreds of news outlets? That Romney? He was there. We were just so impressed by the fact that he could talk without his pants falling down, and somehow that translated into a win.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Excellent. Just excellent.

  • nosio

    Excellent piece, Mr. Wilson.

  • DarthCorleone

    Great column.

  • a non-partisan political post on Pajiba?? never thought I'd see the day. Nicely written piece made even better by it's lack of judgments made one way or the other on the political spectrum

  • no one

    non partisan my ass. If Obama had not stunk up the joint this would have been an entirely different article explaining how much debates really matter.

  • special snowflake

    Great Think Piece, Mr. Wilson, no debating that.

  • BWeaves

    Winning a debate does not make you a good leader. It just makes you a good con man.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    which is not a bad trait for a leader to have....

    but it's more important to think of debating as more than scoring points - "winning" an argument to me is defending your case strongly enough to convince others to your side - ideally, your opponent.

    I do think the debates could be useful, as chances for the leaders to reasonably discuss their positions, but positions are so complex that unless you devoted one debate strictly to one basic top - like immigration, or tax reform - that can't happen.

    My favorite thing to come out of the debates at the moment is Romney's quote: “People got the chance … to cut through all the attacks and counterattacks and all of the theatrics associated with a campaign..." - as if "theatrics," "attacks" and "counterattacks" aren't exactly what constitute a debate.

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