Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Blah, blah, blah, blah, REX, blah, blah, blah

Trying to figure out who won a political debate is a difficult cognitive feat because the point is not usually whether or not one side or the other was convincing to you but whether they were convincing to some other group of people—the only thing that mattered about the Vice Presidential debate, after all, was its effect on the mysterious undecided voters. Listening with somebody else’s ears is no mean feat, especially when their assumptions, values, and habits of thought are alien to your own. It’s quite possible to learn from experience that certain appeals will succeed with uninformed people, but that kind of constructed understanding is clumsy and slow. Many scientists have discovered, for example, that arguments about evolution decisive to biologists are utterly unconvincing to lay audiences; but this understanding doesn’t necessarily make them any more effective in public venues because it seldom becomes intuitive and requires indirection if not deviousness from individuals trained to be literal minded. Napoleon used to say the great talent commanders needed was the ability to guess how their subordinates would hear an order in the heat of battle, something not easy to acquire for those of us who were not born to the manner. Scoring a debate requires a similar skill, a kind of ventriloquism in reverse in which we cast not our voice but our hearing into another body.

I certainly don’t know what the undecideds thought they heard last night, though the CBS poll suggested they thought Edwards won by a fairly large margin. It may be that the messages that mattered were as simple as “Gee, maybe it’s permissible to have doubts about what the President says,” or “Now that you mention it, the economy is pretty punk,” or simply that there is a guy named Edwards whose running and he seems normal enough. If nothing else, the debate may have been the first time in a long time that the voters have heard a word about issues of any kind—I gather that discussion of substantial matters is pretty much taboo on the evening news. I wouldn’t know. I read the papers where such matters are sometimes discussed, though usually in the back along with the car ads.

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