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History, essence, and limits of televised debates


An exciting General Election is anticipated in the UK this December and campaigning has begun in earnest. As a way of sensitivity prospective voters to the issues at stake and the positions of the key political parties with regards to these issues, a televised political debate is scheduled for the 19th of November between Boris Johnson, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party and Jeremy Corby, leader of the rival Labour Party. This culture of televised debate emanated from the United States of America about 60 years ago.

It may interest readers and students of political history to know that the first ever debate in the USA between rivals for elective, political office, can be traced to 1857 when Abraham Lincoln insisted on having a debate with Stephen Douglas on “the virtue of the republic and the evil of slavery”.  The debate was not a moderated debate and what was then at stake was a senatorial seat in the State of Illinois.  Abraham Lincoln lost that election but a history in political debating had already been made.

Abraham Lincoln would later win the presidency in 1860, in an election which featured no political debates. In fact, there were no debates between presidential candidates until 1952 when the League of Women Voters organized debates between presidential candidates. The culture of televised debate would later creep in with the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.  The handsome and more charismatic John Kennedy won the televised debate while an earlier radio debate had been won by Nixon.  Mr Nixon was said to have appeared rather “shifty” on television and that contributed to his loss of the election.


If televised debates could prove the downfall of a candidate who otherwise could have won in an election, why bother to participate in them? President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate with Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964; he was leading in the polls, and public speaking was not his forte.  Similarly, in 1968, Richard Nixon who again contested the presidency with Senator George Mc-Govern, refused to debate.  Nixon was the front runner in the opinion polls and his non-participation might have been informed by his experience with John Kennedy in 1960. 
Just as John McCain was about to do in one of his 2008 presidential debates when he said he was attending to legislative matters in Congress, President Jimmy Carter in 1980 refused to participate in the first presidential debate because it included independent candidate John Anderson. He, however, attended subsequent debates and that memorable question by Ronald Reagan did him great damage: “Are Americans better off today than they were four years ago?” The state of the economy and the American hostage crisis in Iran suggested it was the right question that would nail the coffin of the Carter presidency.

The essence of televised political debates would be appreciated in a society, such as America or Great Britain, where prospective voters can see it as an opportunity to evaluate the policies, preparedness and demeanor of those who seek to govern them. It must, however, also be warned that a great leader may not be the best of debaters.

In the United States of America where televised presidential debates have been around for almost 60 years, or in Great Britain, where debates between potential prime ministers took off for the first time in 2010, the outcome of elections tends to be decided by those alluded to as “floating or undecided voters”. This is more so in the United States of America where the outcome of a presidential election could be dramatically influenced by an event on voting day. The one portrayed as front runner could suddenly find himself or herself struggling to catch up in the opinion polls! 

Televised political debates in the UK – we have had quite a few of them since 2010 – may not produce the same impact as it is capable of in the US. The reason is that here, the Prime Minister is not elected directly by the voters. Voters in the UK vote to elect their representatives into the House of Commons. The effect of a good outing, or mediocre performance, by a prospective Prime Minister can only be marginal. It is unlikely one would want to vote against a competent representative of his or her constituency just because the leader of the party has not performed so brilliantly in a debate.

However, the scheduled debate between Johnson and Corby is expected with great anticipation. The voting public will want to know what policies their parties have on the perennial issues of the economy, education, security, and health, among numerous others. The highly divisive and explosive issue of Brexit will dominate many thoughts, and could be the crucial issue in Election 2019.
Akinola wrote from United Kingdom.


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