Posted by: George | October 23, 2012

Phenomenology of Debates

Weeks before the first presidential debate of 2012, pundits were saying that debates rarely matter. Of course, they always mention a few exceptions—the Kennedy/Nixon debates of 1960 (Nixon blended into the background, he didn’t wear makeup, he had beads of sweat on his upper lip, etc.), the Carter/Ford debate of 1976 (Ford made one significant slip when he said that Eastern Europe wasn’t dominated by the Soviet Union), and the Reagan/Carter debates of 1980 (when Reagan came across as both presidential and fatherly).

Then, after Obama’s poor performance in Denver, debates seemed to matter again. Romney seemed surprisingly presidential, and the president seemed disappointingly like Romney. Or, at least, like we thought Romney would come across.

Maybe the debates don’t matter and do matter at the same time, in different ways. I am going to explain this with a little help from phenomenology.

Phenomenology began with Kant’s “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. Kant argued that we cannot know the “thing-in-itself,” that is, how the “thing” is apart from our perceptions. What we can know, and this is the basis of phenomenology, is how we perceive the “thing,” that is, we can understand consciousness. So, philosophy shifted from discussions of “the truth of physical reality” to the “truth of how we perceive reality.”

Please, forgive the four sentence summary of phenomenology. I needed to establish a ground for the point that I wish to make about debates: maybe debates don’t matter, maybe we are even at a point in the development of mass media and social networking that we cannot even know what actually happens in a “debate-in-itself.” All we can know is how the debates are treated in media (not just cable news shows but also Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and text messages from our friends), that is, our public—and publicly constructed—consciousness of the debate. Maybe our mass consciousness (a product of our over-abundance of media) does matter.

Weeks before the first presidential debates of 2012, pundits argued about who would win, who had the edge, what each candidate would say. Ten minutes into it, Twitter was awash of comments like “What’s wrong with Obama?” Within seconds of the debate’s conclusion, the pundits joined in.

It is possible to argue that this is participatory democracy—everyone is allowed to speak, everyone has a chance to influence the spin of a debate.  But nothing about this process feels right. Even spending a few minutes on Twitter before, during, or after a debate makes me want to take a shower.

In an era saturated with media, we have more information, not more knowledge.  We also have faster information, without time for reflection. Anything approaching an extended argument is obscured. Walter Benjamin predicted much of this in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” an essay published in 1935.

In the second presidential debate of 2012, the town hall debate, Romney made his comment about “binders of women,” which went viral. The fact that it went viral might have, depending on your view, either obscured Romney’s good record of placing women into his cabinet when governor of Massachusetts or obscured other features of his answer, like his being proud of letting his female chief-of-staff off early to cook dinner for her family. The “binders of women” is much more suited to the mass media and social networking than the “debate-in-itself.”

In the same debate, Obama said that he called the attack on our embassy in Benghazi an act of terror. Romney thought he misspoke. Candy Crowley interrupted Romney to say that Obama was right. The entire issue of how the Obama administration handled the attack, an issue on which the president was vulnerable, was soon pushed aside by pro-Obama glee at Romney’s blunder and pro-Romney rage at Crowley’s apparent bias. The “debate-in-itself” disappeared.

So, here is how I would contextualize debates. The “debate-in-itself” is mattering less and less all the time. The phenomenology of debates is mattering more and more.




  1. I thought this was a brillant entry. When you said, you “want to take a shower” after looking on facebook and twitter, I could not help, but to laugh. I want to believe I know what you’re talking about. The next thing that stuck out to me was “In an era saturated with media, we have more information, not more knowledge.” I believe this is completely true. One of the greatest things we have is the ability to think. Then, you talked about not having time to reflect. What is it with this idea of who won a debate? Why can’t the debates just be about the policies? Is the reason we watch the debate to hear what their policies are about? But then again, we don’t really know exactly what their policies are, right? We can only speculate, right? We’ll Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and CSPAN.


    • Thanks Matt. I like what you said about the concern with who won. Why should it matter?


  2. I would have to concur with Your assessment of the debate. I would add that through out this pre-election waltz substance has long dissappeared over the horizon. It’s become like Nascar with the greatest interest in anticpation of the fiery crash. Hey there is gonna be a checkered flag and this could be the last race that has a semblance of authenticity. Mo money! Mo money!
    That the Supreme Court ( their words not mine) has allowed companies to circumvent previous election donation protocol is absurd. Sometime in the distant future, far away far away in another universe will be a civilization that will be driven by common sense, fairness and strong socialistic precepts, ruled by Marx……, Groucho or Harpo.


  3. Thanks for the comment, Skip. Mika Mika Brzezinski of Morning Joe (MSNBC) has called this the Seinfeld election. It is an election about nothing. Here we are in one of the biggest crises this nation has ever faced, and it’s like the candidates got together and decided that certain topics are off the table.


  4. So true. I want to revisit once again the Supreme Courts decision to allow groups to function as individual entities ( Citizens United) with First amandement rights. The result had to be obvious. It may be my naivete but this goes hand in hand with some of the banking laws and lack of regulations that point to the selling out of America to the Military Industrial Complex that President Ike mentioned as he stepped down.As the President has said this election is about the future of America like none I can remember..Skip


    • For state elections, Montana has strict limits on campaign contributions. So, candidates can’t buy that many ads. They have to talk to voters. It seems to work. I’m not sure we are going to get much accomplished until we have significant campaign funding reform. The Supreme Court didn’t help much. Thanks for your comment Skip.


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