bizarroPOLITIK: what is political debate?

Friday, October 12th, 2012



random thoughts

on the role of

political debate

AKA: A Rambling 600-word Caption to a Really Cool Photo


Watching this morning’s US VP debate, I was struck again by just how vital, in the broader political scientific sense, a debate can be , despite the modern televised debate being an over-hyped, overly stage-managed and yet grossly under-estimated event. Done really well, as it was this morning by both speakers, debates can be a powerful tool in the political discourse – interesting to note the differences between the Biden and Ryan styles and tactics; in normal circumstances it’s usually the older, incumbent warrior that would take a calmer and more ordered approach, and a younger challenger would go in emotionally-charged and with a little more (perfectly justified) scrappy verve. In Biden v. Ryan, however, those roles were reversed, a proverbial passionate Baby Boomer vs. jaded Gen X’er contest, probably the first time this kind of matchup has happened in American politics.

It is something sorely missed in the South African context, for obvious reasons. The last real South African debate, if I’m not mistaken was between Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk in 1994. And apart from the occasional mature parliamentary disagreement, political discussion in South Africa is reduced to either one-sided childish mudslinging or badly designed, underhanded PR and media manipulation covered in distracting newspeak. Do South African politicians still know how to debate?

Are we not teaching high school kids how to debate, properly, intelligently, with the respect it deserves? I remembered being taught – I was never good at it, too emotional most like – how to understand a subject or a point of view, to research it, to discuss it and, even if you did not agree with it, attempt to defend or oppose the issue in a mature and proper manner, to the best of your abilities.

Say what you like about the Americans, but one thing I get out of their electoral process, is this: they are master debaters – see what I did there, those who are still reading this ramble?  In the true sense –and non-entendre sense – their debate skill, both Democrat and Republican, and their approach to political discourse as a whole is something to be admired, emulated and reproduced in our own sphere of supposed “democracy”. Granted, I admit, their system is not perfect and not completely honest. There is still a lot of backroom manipulation and above board “spin” in the American political process, but they really do it well. They present the options, the choices to their people in such a way that they still think they are important enough to be part of the process, assured of a stake in how their country is run. For the most part, this is mostly smoke and mirrors, but its hell of lot better than what we have here. Our politicians can’t even speak the language, and when I mean language, I don’t mean English…I mean the language of politics.

In an ideal South Africa, I’d like to see, in the lead up to the ANC’s Mangaung Leadership and Whiskey-Tasting Jamboree and beyond that, to our next general elections, one great multi-lingual professional televised clash of skill, wit and policy presentation between President Zuma and whoever feels fit to challenge him for leadership of the ANC, and in turn the country. I doubt it will ever happen.  We might learn something about our politicians, our political process, and about ourselves.

Thanks for reading, if you got all the way to the end. I hope I didn’t bore you, depress you or waste your time. All I actually really wanted to do post this really indicative photo of the two American VP candidates which I thought was really cool, with a 600 word caption that used the term “master debater” in a semi-serious way.


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