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When politics turns to theatre

Publication Date : 15-10-2012


The first debate between incumbent US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney was widely judged to have gone in the latter's favour. He came across as more focused, personable and yes, presidential, than the unusually tepid performance by Obama. No sooner had pundits declared the clash between the two vice-presidential candidates last week a draw, and minds were already focusing on the next big showdown between their respective bosses on Tuesday. Thus has the US presidential election been turned to political theatre, a horse race with pundits ever ready to pronounce on who's up and who's down in a manner scarcely different from commentaries on sports matches.

Politics in the US has a memorable history as theatre. Richard Nixon looked pale and sweaty, jowly five o'clock shadow and all, in his debate with a photogenic John Kennedy in 1960. Television viewers judged he had clearly lost. But radio listeners thought Nixon had beaten Kennedy on policy points. Nixon lost, but by just 120,000 votes. Ronald Reagan, Hollywood star before he entered politics, always sounded better in person than did his speeches on paper. Some older women, indeed, confessed they voted for the septuagenarian for no other reason than that he did not dye his hair.

So, Obama's lacklustre showing against Romney might yet cost him dear. Much depends on whether he can recover his audacity to charm in the two remaining showdowns. If he does, and presents his arguments in the inspirational way he did four years ago, he might yet best his opponent and get re-elected. This would further strengthen the notion of the primacy of performance on stage over performance in office. Appearing presidential is clearly gaining on actually being presidential.

In today's hyper-media age, it bears considering how this politics as theatre is impacting the process of selecting leaders and shaping their ability to govern. If leaders are forced to make a gradual descent into superficiality in the form of interminable campaigns and carefully staged conventions, as well as debates as reality shows or boxing matches, it cannot augur well for democracy.

How Americans choose to run their elections is for them to decide. Singaporeans, however, might well ponder if this form of democracy would work for them. Given the country's unique political, economic and social circumstances, it would be folly to allow a situation where major decisions are shaped by polls, TV debates or soundbites. Singaporeans, rightly, expect leaders to lead, even with the growing desire for more political engagement. A new generation of voters will have to discern between political style and substance.


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