Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Debating the value of political debates

As part of its commitment to being an active and engaged member of the Waterbury, Conn., community, Post University has signed on as the Gold Sponsor of tomorrow's 2011 Waterbury Mayoral Debate.

The debate offers an up-close-and-personal opportunity for the public to assess its choices before voting on Nov. 8. This year's debate will pit candidates Michael J. Jarjura (R), Neil O'Leary (D), and Larry De Pillo (I) against one another.

Our sponsorship helps support an age-old part of the political process that is driven by the notion that an educated electorate is a better electorate. But some might ask the question, Do such debates make a difference, and should you pay attention to them?

In a word, yes. Here's why.

On the national level, people still talk about the impact of the Kennedy-Nixon debates on voters' impressions of these two presidential candidates during the 1960 election. Those enamored with the historical past (and students of the pre-Civil War era) remain intrigued by the Lincoln-Douglas debates leading up to the senatorial election in the State of Illinois in 1858.

Many believe that John F. Kennedy caught the public's attention and swayed some votes, helping him to win the presidency. Abraham Lincoln lost that Illinois Senate race a century earlier, but his performance in the debates clearly helped to pave his way into the White House just a couple of years later.

Why did these two noteworthy debates make a difference? Mainly it was because the citizenry took notice of them. Minds and opinions were changed -- some positively, some negatively. Some people, who hadn't given the elections much consideration, became enthused about what they heard and saw. In short, it was American democracy as it can, and should, be: a recognition that public opinion remains an integral part of the political process.

Democracy and the values of a republic begin at the local level. It was at the local community level that the political style of democracy originated in ancient Greece and later in Rome. This basic truth can sometimes become obscured when so much of today's news and information is focused on national or international events.

Yet, from the beginnings of the United States, Americans championed the notion of community-based government and popularly-elected officials. We made it clear that our chosen decision-makers were to act on the community's behalf by assuming three roles.
  1. They are to be public servants who make decisions that are in the best interests of every citizen in their constituency.
  2. Officials must consider the will of the people when making these decisions.
  3. These officials must be held accountable for their actions.
However, for these expectations to function, the public must also make a commitment to the political process. They must monitor and weigh elected officials' decisions against their own priorities, and then make informed choices on Election Day.

Governance is indeed a partnership between those chosen to represent the public and those doing the choosing. How well suited a candidate might or might not be for elected office is not always clear.

There is, of course, the candidate's resume of past actions and involvements (assuming they have any of note) and the viewpoints he or she expresses on matters of interest to the public. Much of this is usually available through local media sources, the Internet, and the candidates' own advertising campaigns.

However, such information might only provide an outline of the candidate's qualifications. What the voters need to also evaluate at election time are the candidates' unrehearsed and unscripted reactions to pressure.

Here the debate forum is unequaled. The give-and-take of question-and-answer exchanges (that often delve into topics neither candidate anticipated) can be especially revealing. Suddenly the planned agenda changes and the voters are given the opportunity to see how the hopeful will react.

Does a candidate respond thoughtfully, coherently, and frankly? Does a candidate resort to less civil rejoinders, such as name-calling and personal attacks on the opponent? How might such an individual behave when faced with a similarly unexpected situation while in office?

For voters, a public debate can help to answer these and other questions that need to be considered before the electorate ever steps into the booth on Election Day.

Quite naturally, all of this presumes that the public is paying attention. Democracy is unlikely to work well as a governing format unless the public is attentive. In the absence of voter involvement, the odds of it producing new officials who remind you of John Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln are not particularly good.

Still, acquiring knowledge of the various candidates can be a time-consuming process for the typical citizen. Most voters face busy lives of their own, resulting in precious little time being given to political considerations. Many will also be understandably skeptical of the candidates' own publicity efforts.

Under such circumstances, the notion of a public debate between the candidates can make the selection process considerably easier for the average voter. In one relatively brief setting, the voter can gauge the hopefuls' knowledge of the issues, viewpoints on controversial topics, and personal style. As such, the debate forum becomes for the public a capsule version of what their democracy really means.

That's why I strongly encourage you to attend the mayoral debates if you can, pay attention to the news coverage that comes out of the event, and learn about the issues at stakes and the candidates' viewpoints.

To attend the Waterbury mayoral debates live and in person, register for the event online. The debates will be held at Villa Rosa, 380 Farmwood Road, Waterbury. It's $35 to attend if you're a member of the Waterbury Regional Chamber of Commerce. Non-members are $50.

Your vote ultimately influences the rules that you will be obliged to live under as a Waterbury citizen. Take advantage of your democratic power, and make an informed decision on Election Day.