Saturday, September 27, 2008

By a Nose

Well this is interesting (courtesy of the Washington Post, via the Tabsir blog). The "this" I'm referring to, in case you were unsure, is the rather exuberant advertisement in that screenshot of the Wall Street Journal's website, from the A.M. hours of September 26, proclaiming "McCain Wins Debate!" The "interesting," of course, arises from the fact that the debate didn't occur until the evening of the 26th.

(Disclaimer: I've visited the actual page for the WSJ article, and after reloading it a couple of dozen times, none of the handful of ads that appeared were the alleged McCain piece. I can only assume that the Washington Post writer that passed it along checked its veracity.)

Whether it is/was real or not, what I find interesting is the concept of an ad such as this one, and what, exactly, it's intended to do. The ad plays upon the foregone assumption in public discourse about presidential debates that one of the candidates "wins." I've always found this idea odd because, unlike in a typical competitive debate, there is no officiating party to adjudicate the merit of opposing arguments. This complicates the question of how a winner is determined - most topics conceded by the opponent? But of course no candidate ever concedes a point... What makes an argument "successful" in this context?

My point, I guess, is that, like most of the political jousting that takes place in the public eye (debates, campaign ads, monologues of talking points), the purpose here is not to facilitate the electorate's objective decision-making. Their minds have already largely been, and continue to be, unconsciously made up through processes of identification, affection, etc., and only subsequently consciously justified to themselves in rational terms of public policy. A debate, then, can only provide fodder to reinforce preexisting identifications - everyone believes "their" candidate won, and if the victory was less than resounding, it was only because the other guy behaved in a despicable, immature manner anyway, thus evoking even more sympathy for "the noble underdog" (Didn't Orwell play with something like this? Though I seem to recall more screaming...). The "winner" existed in the mind of each observer before the debate even began.

So what does an ad preemptively declaring disputational victory do to potential voters? As far as I can tell, pretty much the same thing as the debate itself.

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