CHIANG MAI, Thailand — I don’t want to add to the endless debate over the chances of the two U.S. presidential contenders. Rather, I want to focus on the debates and some possible corollaries for Asia.
Audiences in the United States and elsewhere have followed with concentration and interest the three spectacular exercises in personality projection. (A cynic would call them “extraordinary TV shows.”)
Debates, in general, can generate vigorous intellectual exchanges, depending, of course, on the quality of participants. In Tibetan Buddhism, for the instance, they used to constitute the core of monastic education and spiritual development.
In the political world — especially in the U.S. — they tend to be the core of long and strenuous campaigns. There are many good reasons why this practice is maintained and strengthened: The electorate has a good chance to evaluate the leadership potential of the candidates when they face off, alone and deprived of expert advisers, relying on the personal skills that will be tested when one of them secures the mandate to govern.
But is this the whole truth?
First, let’s go back to semantics. A real “debate,” according to the definition in the Cambridge Dictionary of English, is “a serious discussion of a subject in which many people take part.” This may sound pedantic, but what we witnessed does not meet that definition, in spite of questions put forward by a select audience. Instead, I would call it a high profile “political duel.”
Second, there was no difficulty in perceiving a certain orchestration of the debates, a behind-the-scenes manipulation by PR experts. Glimpses of spontaneity was what the public expected.
Third, the qualities of the new leader of the only superpower will be tested in quite a different environment when crises and issues unfold. The president’s personality is a key factor, but it must not be considered in isolation. The system provides for top advisers and institutional bodies, and an enlightened leader will prove his credentials to the degree that he can draw from the wisdom of these voices and set a final, coordinated line of conduct.
The real “opponent,” once on the hot seat, will not be another candidate, but a much more complicated set of urgent problems demanding solutions. A presidential candidate may stumble during a debate and prove himself charismatic once in office — or the opposite. This is nothing philosophic or esoteric, and most of us ordinary citizens have experienced it in one way or another during our lives.
My personal conclusion, submitted with no claims of dogmatic correctness, is that television debates may help to form an opinion, but they do not offer a final judgment. The proof is that after the three televised debates, a columnist of the Los Angeles Times was still struggling: “On Nov. 7, most who cast their ballots will be voting against the other guy instead of for which ever cautious, centrist figure they will make the most powerful man in the world.”
What I find a little disturbing is that there have been a few voices calling for transplanting the American debate culture to the Asian political scene. In principle, the idea has merits. But history proves that there must be extreme prudence when attempting direct transplants from the West to the East, be it in religion, economics, politics or other matters.
While Asian leaders need to project more often their ideas and to offer more clarity about their policies, the Asian ethos calls for more subdued forms of political confrontation. I have serious doubts whether the American debate structure, with all its sensationalism, could be transplanted in Asia and whether it would necessarily lead to a better screening of candidates for public office.
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