Sunday, October 14, 2012

When did elections become American Idol?

Full disclosure: I love to watch debates - academic or political. I love the give and take. I watched every presidential primary debate this season. (The British call it the silly season with good reason.) I've watched both debates now between the candidates and will be glued to the last two. (Update: the second presidential debate does not change what I've already posted.)

I'm NOT looking for winners and losers. I'm looking for information. I'm not one of those over-hyped "undecided voters." I've made a choice and I don't think a debate will change my mind so I'll take advantage of my state's early voting. However, and this is a big "however," I still want to understand each candidate and party's ideas, desires, plans, history, and more. I never get tired of it. Sometimes I agree with my chosen candidate and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I like what he or she says and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I support their compromises and sometimes I don't. I'm not a single-issue voter, and since I cast my first presidential vote in the 60s, I've tried to look at the full package.

So what? I was watching some "news" coverage after the vice presidential debate and they were discussing what was trending on social media during the debate...DURING the debate.
  • We are NOT WIRED TO MULTITASK. When we're listening/watching the debate and start texting, tweeting or facebooking, our brain is simply switching back and forth very, very rapidly (below our ability to perceive.) So we're not actually attentive to either.
  • Much of the "trending" was about ridiculous topics including one candidate's workout photos and the other's use of words like "malarkey." ????? This is what's important in choosing a person who is "a heartbeat away from the president?" This is the how we choose a potential world leader?
When did the most important political decisions that will affect our lives become American Idol? Are we electing the Debater-in-Chief? Do we expect him or her to go mano a mano with other world leaders on TV to decide the fate of nations? Do we really think the endless dissection of jokes, wise cracks, facial expressions, body language, and zingers is the best way to make this important decision?

What about the Founding Fathers? How would they hold up?

Most wouldn't fare too well based on our pop-idol values.

George Washington hated to speak in public and many of his addresses were simply published and not spoken. He was self-conscious about his lack of formal education among the political elite of the late 18th century. He was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd politician and judge of people and events but he would have appeared wooden and ill-at-ease in a public debate.

John Adams was scrappy and considered a good trial lawyer and effective legislator in the Continental Conventions. He defended British soldiers successfully after the Boston massacre (which would have been political death in today's world of negative ads.) He was also irritable and irritating and seldom curbed his tongue in his attacks on those who disagreed with him. He didn't play well with others when he disagreed.

Thomas Jefferson wrote soaring prose that still inspires us but he was a horrible speaker. This voice was weak and barely audible when he addressed any gathering and he avoided it whenever possible. He would have delighted in today's campaigns of negativity. Through his support of newspapers and others who he agreed with, he published or caused to be published, scathing attacks on his political enemies. His attacks, through his pal Jemmy Madison, went for the jugular in attempt to destroy Alexander Hamilton, and even George Washington while he served as his Secretary of State.

James (Jemmy) Madison was a masterful debater, although he too did not have a strong voice, and people often complained he was hard to hear in a large room. However, in his long state and federal legislative career and in the Constitutional Convention, he held his own with other more powerful debaters. Most famously, in the Virginia Ratifying Convention to ratify the new U.S. Constitution, he faced off against Patrick Henry. Although Henry brought his A game bombast and withering rhetoric, he turned out to be no match for Madison, an author of the document with intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny and how it had been debated and decided.

Today, we would not select the wooden Washington, the irascible Adams, the weak-voiced Jefferson or the egg-head Madison. We would have preferred the smooth-talking Aaron Burr, who kill Hamilton while still vice president; the pyrotechnic Henry who was an avowed anti-federalist who would have gotten rid of anything but independent, autonomous state governments; the avuncular, always charming and folksy and wily Ben Franklin, who would have only a one-house legislature, removing a critical check on popular passion; and who knows what other folly.

Presidential leadership is not about "optics." Would we elect Lincoln today? Would we elect the very short, "great little Madison?" Would "his rotundness," Adams receive our nod? Would we pick Jefferson who was famous for his slouching posture as well as his weak voice? Sadly, probably not.

I'll continue to enjoy the debates. I'll go to the polls and cast my ballot. But it would be more assuring to me if citizens watched the debates using the active listening techniques I teach managers and executives.
  • Quiet your mind and ignore stray thoughts or preparing a response.
  • Focus your entire attention on the other person.
  • Listen to what he or she is saying and observe the body language and tone.
  • Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person and that he or she knows you understand.
Finally, I can't help but quote from that poor debater, Thomas Jefferson:
"A nation that expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization … expects what never was and never will be."
Or maybe from that fierce debater, James Madison:
Liberty & Learning lean on each other for their mutual and surest support.
Please vote...and please, make a rational, informed decision. It ain't American Idol!
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Check out more about the politics of the early republic and today's leaders in Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers.