During the month of October tens of millions of viewers will tune into three presidential debates, and maybe a fourth between vice-presidential candidates. For the Democrat and Republican tickets, there is no bigger occasion to solidify support and sway any remaining undecided voters.
As a moderator of the first debate in Denver, long-time PBS host Jim Lehrer was interviewed as to his reasons for accepting such a role and asked as well whether social media would have an impact. His replies were not unrelated: tough to turn down such a consequential and widely-watched occasion and as far as social media goes, largely inconsequential.
To be fair, his explanation was a bit more nuanced, pointing to social media as an important outlet for the campaign teams to spin the outcomes and subsequent news cycles. But nothing, according to Lehrer, can rival the unfiltered dual of President Obama and Governor Romney in front of a live television audience.
As a semi-retired television personality and presidential debate historian, perhaps his views may be somewhat jaded. After all, PBS provided live online streaming and constant social media discussions during the August-September party conventions. Yet for Republicans it was an unscripted and unwanted television moment provided by Clint Eastwood that would set Twitter feeds alight.
In the summer, meanwhile, those Quebecers paying attention to their own election watched party leaders brawl their way through an open debate of four candidates followed by a unique series of one-on-one matches featuring the three leading contenders for premier (each contest garnering roughly one and a half million viewers nightly). Lauded by several television pundits and journalists as innovative and worthy of replication across the country, nothing in the social media universe seemed to rival the importance and impact of these events.
Yet Americans elect their heads of government; we do not. The centralizing confines of television debates thus makes more sense for a presidential model where, with few exceptions, two candidates are vying for a single office every four years. In this country, however, shining the spotlight uniquely on party leaders accentuates the decline of the legislature and those in it, beginning with how they are elected.
In Quebec, widely watched televised debates epitomized the unrelenting focus on party leaders at the expense of hundreds of other candidates vying for elected office. More television coverage means more tweets – unless an online posting is outrageous enough to warrant a response from the leader. In both countries, moreover, top-down campaigns bring ever-more centralized and aggressive partisan tactics, especially south of the border where the absence of meaningful public financing laws means hundreds of millions of dollars poured into television ads targeting so-called swing States (that could break either way).
Despite the vaunted potential for expanding grassroots conversation, the conditions for discourse and compromise narrow. As political operatives are fond of saying, negativity may not be pretty but it often works (except occasionally when a line is inadvertently crossed). Even television journalists are worried. In a recent Commencement address, long-time network anchor, Ted Koppel, spoke of the changing relationship between technology, politics and media in a prescient manner: “political debate is a wonderful thing; but partisan shrieking is corrosive and destructive.”
Such is the stark and disconcerting contrast between the Obama 2008 campaign that energized so many new and younger voters, and the present variant described by one sympathetic reporter of the Washington Post as nothing short of “betrayal.” A prominent Democratic mayor notably characterized campaign attacks on both sides as “nauseating.”
On the other hand, if social media is gaining some traction it is in a truly local sense, at the municipal level where television is far less prevalent. Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi has been much discussed in this regard, though the overriding media focus on the Mayor gives room for pause. It is encouraging, then, to see one Toronto-based initiative by a local company (Metaviews) aimed at evaluating the usage of social media by all city councillors.
Local elections happening this fall across Nova Scotia similarly feature a widening array of digital innovations meant to both communicate and engage. In a city known for backroom secrecy, the leading contender to become Halifax’s next mayor promises systemic transparency and open data.
In sum, if a more participative democracy is to become infused with civility and genuine engagement online as well as offline, it will happen from below and in unique manners across diverse communities. Such onetime virtues of the parliamentary model have instead given way to a digital universe where social media – for the time being at least – accentuates the “mad men” mentality of consumerism and television advertising and the sorts of politics that come with it.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).