24 January 2010

TV Debate Claptrap: a warning to those cooking up rules for the leaders' election debates

Iain Dale has just reported that arguments are developing about the formats for the TV debates between party leaders during the general election.

It reminded me of the pointlessness of having rules that can't be enforced, as happened to the ban on applause (that failed miserably) during the 1984 US election debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.

They took place a few weeks after the Claptrap film had been broadcast on UK television, and I'd temporarily fled the country to take up a visiting professorship at Duke University in North Carolina. While there, I was glued to the TV debates, and managed to get an article on the subject published in the Washington Post (one result of which was that I was later summoned to the Reagan White House to run a workshop for presidential speechwriters).

I'm reproducing the original article here as a warning to those, whether TV producers or party leaders and their aides, who might be trying to invent silly rules that won't be followed and can't be enforced.

DEBATE CLAPTRAP
It didn’t matter what the moderator said, the audience couldn’t help applauding (Washington Post, 1984)

This year's presidential debates clearly demonstrated that neither rules of procedure nor moderators' warnings are capable of preventing audiences from applauding or laughing.

The attempt to ban such displays of approval is presumably motivated by a fear that the mass
audience of television viewers might be swayed in the direction of whichever candidate won most applause. In trying to enforce the ban, however, Barbara Walters and Edwin Newman preferred to stress the amount of valuable debating time that was being wasted by the unruly audience behavior.

In either case, why did the procedural rules and moderators' protestations have so little effect on supporters of both candidates in the audience?

A preliminary analysis of the videotapes reveals that almost all the applause and laughter was in fact triggered by claptrap - not in the sense that the candidates were speaking nonsense, but in an older and largely forgotten sense of the word. For the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary informs us that claptrap is a "trick, device or language designed to catch applause."

After studying recordings of more than 500 political speeches, I can report not just that such
devices are still in widespread use, but that most applause occurs in response to a very small number of verbal and nonverbal cues. When used in appropriate combinations, these work as very powerful "invitations to applaud."

Inspection of the videotapes shows that two of the most effective verbal devices were used by the candidates to make 18 of the 20 points that attracted an audience response.

One of these is a two-part contrast or antithesis of the sort made famous by Shakespeare with the lines "To be, or not to be”' and "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." More recent examples include John F, Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream that my four little children will one day five in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their
skin, but by the content of their character."

In, Louisville Walter Mondale was the first to win applause, using the following contrast:

a) I've proposed- over one hundred billion dollars in cuts in federal spending over four years.
b) But I am not going to cut it out of Social Security and Medicare and student assistance and
things that people need.


Later on, he prompted laughter and applause with a contrastive quotation from the past:

a) It's not what he doesn’t know that bothers me,
b) but what he knows for sure that just ain't so.

Mondale's counterattack to the president's "There you go again" was formulated in terms of an overlapping contrast - the second part of a first contrast doubled as the first part of a second contrast, after the second part of which the audience applauded:

a) Remember the last time you said that? You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare.
a)-b) And you said "Oh no, there you go again, Mr. President. "And what didyou do right after the election?”
b) You went right out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare.

In the Kansas City debate, a technically simpler contrast also brought applause for Mondale:

a) Mr. President, I accept your commitment to peace,
b) but I want you to accept my commitment to a strong national defense.

Meanwhile, the same device was working equally well for President Reagan. In the first debate, his longest burst of applause came when he said:

a) I miss going to church,
b) but I think the Lord understands.

For another simple contrast, he was rewarded with laughter during the second debate:

a) I've heard the national debt blamed for a lot of things,
b) but not for illegal immigration across our borders.

And when he contrasted his own age with that of Mondale he attracted very extended laughter:

a) I will not make age an issue in this campaign.
b) I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

A second device packages political messages in lists of three, as in Hitler's famous slogan 'Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer" (One people, one state, one leader) or in Reagan's three reasons for invading Grenada: "To protect American lives, to restore law and order, and to prevent chaos."

Contrastive and three-part elements can also be effectively used in constructing a single message, as exemplified by Winston Churchill's celebrated "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few."

In the Louisville debate, Mondale's longest burst of applause came when he used three rhetorical questions to make a point about abortion:

a) If it's rape, how do you draw a moral judgment on that?
b) If it's incest, how do you draw a moral judgment on that?
c) Does every woman in America have to present herself before some judge, picked by. Jerry Falwell, to clear her personal judgment?

Having spent several years studying the workings of these and other devices involved in the applause elicitation process, I found myself feeling increasingly sorry for the Louisville and Kansas City audiences as I watched them desperately trying to sit on their hands. For they were not just supposed to stay silent while being exposed to some of the most powerful rhetorical techniques known to man, but were then chastised like naughty school-children on the relatively few occasions when the pressure to respond got the better of them.

Perhaps in future debates there should either be no live audiences or the candidates should be required to speak from specially edited scripts containing no claptrap.

Max Atkinson is a senior research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford and visiting scholar at Duke University (or, at least, so he was at that time in 1984).

1 comment:

Rashidajones said...

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