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    Designing the Election: Part II

    Matthew Messner
    Nov 6, '12 1:24 AM EST

    Here is the second of two posts about the design aspects of the election.  In our Designing Criticism class we have been discussing what the design of particular aspects of the campaign tell us about our electoral process and our democracy.  

    This first essay,was by Adrianne Jørgensen.  It can be found here.

    This is my contribution. Happy Voting.


    As Seen on TV: American Democracy
    Matthew Messner

    It is through the Presidential electoral process that we can read the American ideal of democracy.  It is no secret that every last detail of every campaign is meticulously planned.  It is a system that is designed and, ironically, agreed upon.  While in reality it may have nothing to do with what democracy really is, it is exactly what might make it all so American.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the televised debates.  

    In recent elections, the main debates have taken the form of a three part series.  The first is the classical ideal of the debate with two candidates before a crowd and a moderator.  The second rearranges the players in to the “town hall” formation, in which a, now smaller, crowd surround the candidates siting on a level stage.  The last is intended to be a discussion had over a table, interview style, no crowd.  These three arrangements are American democracy.  Decidedly calm and particularly planned, there are no surprises and everything is as it should be.

    The first debate quenches the need for the candidates to be Presidential.  The U.S.'s obsession with the Greek “looking” democracy is still very real.  The staging of this debate positions the candidates as Greek thespians in an amphitheater, waxing planned talking points like a script.  This debate simply makes the election official. 

    The second debate is to make sure that the candidates are American enough.  The town hall meeting is seen as a historic staple of American democracy.  Our freedom was won in Revolution, but our democracy was played out in rural town halls and churches.  But these modern debates are not town hall meetings.  The crowd is screened, the questions planned, and the venue only references the form of the town hall.  The audience would never be asked to sit in the ubiquitous steel folding chair of any real town hall meeting, and no one is going to stand up and rant at the speaker about some off topic subject.  Wouldn't that be interesting?  But that is not American democracy, at least not at the presidential level.  American democracy is comfortable. 

    The last debate takes on one last Americanism.  Television itself.  The format of the round table interview sits somewhere between Sunday morning news show, daytime women's panel show, and late night comedy interview.  Think This Week meets The View meets Leno.  Nothing ever seems to get figured out, everyone involved is too polite, and there is probably something better on.  Yet, it is for all of these reasons that this is perfect for a contemporary American election.

    The format and form of these shows fulfills the collective prophecy of what an American election should be.  The candidates will say what they are supposed to say, everyone will vote, and that is how democracy is made.  So just sit back and relax.    

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