For a number of reasons I missed both prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s opening speech on Tuesday and the Folketing’s opening debate on Thursday. What I did notice was that neither the speech nor the debate left that much of an impact and that Benjamin Rud Elberth, a Twitter contact who used to work as a communications advisor to the Social Democrats, declared that the opening debate was a complete waste of time and money.
If we look at the behavioural aspect, I obviously appear to agree with Benjamin, but then I have read and listened to countless parliamentary debates and my expectations match my experience. So, do I think we would be better off by scrapping the main parliamentary debates?
First, we could argue that there are numerous outlets for political debate these days. In Denmark DR, TV2 and Radio24syv will be happy to – or at least are obliged to – give space to politicians. Often a concentrated 30 or 60 minute debate will cover the ground as effectively as a 12-hour debate in parliament. With the exception of Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Danish politicians are anxious to appear in the media and to some degree TV and radio debates have taken the place, general parliamentary debates used to occupy.
Still, media debates suffer from the same problems as parliamentary debates. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to figure out what a given politician will say on any current issue once you have made just a bit of research in advance. The more communications training politicians receive and the better they become to stay on message, the less interesting interviews and debates become. And debates rarely, if ever, develop into conversations where the participants interact with one another on a serious substantial level. The rhetorical tools politicians use are pretty crude and predictable – as crude and predictable as those of political journalists, one might add. Try to count the number of attempted “gotchas” in Thursday’s debate. I would also add that while the debates in the British House of Commons are more lively than those in the Folketing – which doesn’t really say much: The Danish parliament is one of the most boring in the known universe – but I have yet to hear anyone argue that they cover more substance.
Before we give up any hope of finding intelligent life in the political arena, we should remember that debating is only one part of the politicians’ trade: Negotiations in different forums are just as important – and it is here the real conversation takes place and here you will see parties and politicians change standpoints on political issues. Generally, Danish politicians are quite civil and constructive in their relationships in day-to-day work.
The best way of characterising political debates would be to see them as complicated plays where the participants play well-defined roles. They will be statements of what is already known and rarely, if ever, yield surprises. They may, however, give us some insights into the political issues of the day, the parties’ standpoints and their relationships to one another. It is a matter of discussion if they give leading politicians an incentive to sharpen their tools for mobilising their respective electorates and we should ask ourselves how we can find forums where politicians are allowed to challenge each other without journalistic intervention. But the marathon debates are a matter for those especially interested in the details of national politics and I also wonder if we can find more concentrated forms.