The Post-Modern VP Debate

Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin appears to be a major turning point in American elections.  We are now seeing the onset of what I’d call the post-modern debate.  Post-modernism originally gained traction in the ivory tower, amongst sympathetic philosophers and intellectuals who were dedicated to challenging the notion that there was such a thing as “truth” that exists independently of individual prejudices.  In the post-modern mindset, notions of truth are nothing more than convenient social constructs, created relative to the time and place in which we conceive them, but largely vacuous in the broader context of world history.  There can be no universal truths, since everything is inherently relative, we hear time and time again from these thinkers.  No one person’s views are better or worse than another’s.


Sadly, this mindset seems to have taken over the Presidential debates and surrounding media commentary.  There are no winners and losers in America’s debates, no matter how incompetent one of the participants is, or how incomprehensible their answers.  Nowhere is this more relevant than in the recent Biden-Palin debate.  What little substance may have remained in American politics was wiped away after the exchange, with media pundits essentially conceding that issues, candidate knowledge, and political accountability are no longer relevant to the election process.  While this lack of concern with actual policy issues has always been a mainstay of American coverage, it has reached appalling levels in this election year.


A review of the media’s compliant commentary is clearly in order here.  It has become increasingly common in the last few elections for pundits to speak about Republicans succeeding in the debates, not because they are skilled debaters or were more knowledgeable on issues, but simply because they barely transcend reporters’ meager expectations.  Presumably, being able to put a sentence together and have others understand it is now enough not to lose a debate.  The lack of knowledge of candidates such as Bush, McCain, and Palin on issues such as Iraq, the economy, and the intricacies of our political system are written off as charming – an indication of how “real” they are in comparison to more elite political figures who are actually concerned with policy issues.


Reporters and pundits have become the masters of setting nearly non-existent standards for success in the debates.  Peter Canellos of the Boston Globe, for example, predicted that “Obama’s and McCain’s performances [in the first debate] will largely be measured against what people expected of them. If they think Obama will dazzle, they’ll probably be disappointed. If they think McCain will show a political veteran’s mastery of policy, they’ll probably be disappointed.”  Ken Rudin of NPR perversely argued that, despite McCain’s poor communication skills, “In some respects, you could say McCain won [the first debate], because the expectation game was that Obama was the better debater.” 


The same framework has been applied in regards to Sarah Palin.  The editors at the New York Times summarized the low expectations of media well: “We cannot recall when there were lower expectations for a candidate than the ones that preceded Sarah Palin’s appearance in the vice-presidential debate.  After a series of stumbling interviews that raised serious doubts even among conservatives about her fitness to serve as vice president, Ms. Palin had to do little more than say one or two sensible things and avoid an election-defining gaffe.”  An MSNBC story printed the day after the VP echoed this approach, contending that “the stakes were much higher and the bar was much lower for Palin.  So, in the contest of low expectations, Palin won.”


For those who missed the debate, it is worth reflecting for a moment on just how atrocious the experience was.  Palin’s comments, for one, reflected a level of spin that is unfortunately common in our electoral system.  She confidently claimed that Americans don’t want another Washington insider to be president, while supporting a “maverick” running mate who has voted with Bush over 90% of the time with President Bush and who has served over two decades in Congress, presiding over major political embarrassments such as the savings and loan scandal.  Palin promised to support close government oversight of business in order to fight greedy Wall-Street fat cats, then complained that government should “get out of the way” of American business.  Perhaps worst of all, Palin completely circumvented many of the questions presented, avoiding discussion of issues like the sub-prime mortgage crisis in favor of completely unrelated topics.  Biden, for his part, was not much better.  His abdication on the housing crisis (supporting court authority to decide on foreclosures and adjustment of mortgage rates for homeowners who face foreclosure) represents more of an abdication of responsibility for public policy than a sound solution to this major economic disaster.  Biden’s nauseatingly hawkish foreign policy stances on Iran (enabled by moderator Gwen Ifill’s warnings of a “nuclear” threat) were enough to make any sane person cringe.


But the sad state of American electoral deliberation was helped along even further by a fawning press.  The lack of substance to the debates wasn’t unnoticed by media pundits, they just didn’t care very much.  The Associated Press reported, for example, that Palin “was adept at not answering questions and stuck to breezy sound bites,” although this lack of concern with issues allowed her to “find comfort in the time limits which allowed her to make her points succinctly on less familiar ground.”  David Folkenflik commented for NPR that, although Palin “wasn’t terribly concerned about participating in a formal debate,” Biden remained little more than “an afterthought.”  He may have been “skilled, in firm command of facts,” but facts don’t matter in the media’s post-modern media culture.  As Folkenflik commented: “Palin looked right into the camera, winked, smiled, joked and conveyed justby how she carried herself that, doggone it, this non-beltway professional would be perfectly comfortable being the understudy for the most powerful person on Earth…That’s not to say Palin actually answered the questions posed by moderator Gwen Ifill.  And why should she have?  The abbreviated periods mandated by the event’s format hardly required it.”


Folkenflik’s notion that candidates need not bother with answering questions – that they need only be concerned with image – were reflected in countless other media commentary.  Tom Shales of the Washington Post argued that “Palin was really debating her own public image rather than Joe Biden.  She subverted the whole purpose of the exercise by merely repeating the key points of her running mate, and ignoring questions that called for more specific answers.”  No matter, Shales commented, since “Palin made and sustained very good eye contact with the camera.”  In the end, Shales reminded us, “those winks and twinkles” of Palin’s were “brought off with a certain style.”


Many may find it disturbing that America’s electoral process has less substance than an episode of American Idol.  This trend should hardly be surprising, however, for those who have closely followed media coverage of the election.  The public relations industry’s takeover of America’s electoral process in the 1980s ensured that our political candidates would be sold to us with the same fluff and fuzzy language that’s used to sell Coca Cola or Pepsi.  This approach is particularly useful for candidates such as Palin, who believe they shouldn’t be required to answer the serious questions of prospective voters and the broader American public.  Such is the reality of electoral politics in today’s post-modern media.




Anthony DiMaggio teaches American Government and Politics of the Developing World at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror,” which will be released in paperback this December.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

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