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My zinger’s bigger than yours – a weird way to select a leader

June 30, 2019

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Thus, in 1988, did Lloyd Bentsen squash Dan Quayle on live TV. It was one of the most famous rhetorical custard pies in recent American political history – not that it helped Bentsen become vice-president. George H W Bush won the presidency, though the rest of the world spent four years praying that nothing untoward would happen to Bush while Quayle, his hapless Veep, was waiting in the wings.

How Americans love their zingers! I’m amazed at how studio audiences seem to get hoodwinked into thinking that the devastating put-downs of rival candidates in TV debates are the inventions of quick minds coming up with the right phrases off the cuff, aimed at the right target at the right moment.

Most of them aren’t. They’re pre-baked, either by the candidate or by members of their team hired for the purpose of creating rhetorical missiles. That said, the best lines fall flat when they’re delivered by lousy actors. Timing, pitch and emotional intensity are equally important if the zinger is to win the attention of the masses, as well as the applause of the audience.

TV debates are game-shows, performed in front of audiences who wish they were quick thinkers themselves, and relish the execution of a well-aimed zinger. They respond to these lines as football fans respond to a perfectly delivered pass across a crowded field, or a devastating goal conjured out of nothing.

Do the performances of the contestants provide any clues about how the winner would perform when they gain the prize? When emotions can be manufactured by the best actors – empathy, anger, compassion – I’m not sure. The ability to project strength, passion, righteous indignation and humour are stock in trade for politicians, as they are for leaders in all fields.

Must a candidate be a good actor to succeed in a job that requires deep reflection, calculated responses to challenging situations and outstanding listening skills? I don’t think mass rhetorical brawls provide any indication of those abilities. The problem is that the debates, the interviews and the stump speeches seem designed to allow the fastest thinkers in the west to become top dogs. Not the deepest, the most stable, the wisest. Not the slow thinkers.

These days, you don’t even need to watch the debates. All you do is wait for the candidate or their supporters to post video clips of their zingers on the social media and let the algorithms do the rest.

How would past US presidents and British prime ministers have fared if they had been required to perform in this arena – Lincoln, Gladstone, Disraeli, the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Churchill, Macmillan? That question would trigger a long discussion between historians. But based on my limited knowledge, I would guess that at least some of these statesmen would never have got past the first post. Lincoln, Disraeli, Teddy Roosevelt and Churchill would perhaps have adapted. But Gladstone, Franklin D Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Macmillan? Most likely not.

Likeability and trust in character often trump the minutiae of policy, unless candidates can successfully bring down their opponents on grounds of hypocrisy, pie in the sky and logical fallacy. Even those weapons didn’t work in the case of Donald Trump. Nor will they necessarily stop Boris Johnson.

Here in the UK, we’ve been treated with the contest for the Conservative Party leadership. The winning candidate will become prime minister. I couldn’t bear to watch the debates. But judging from media clips, it’s clear that we have much to learn from the US in the zinger department. Most of the attempted put-downs were as sad as failed souffles.

Nor do I watch the BBC’s Question Time. The questions and the answers generally depress me. As for the audience applause, I’m surprised that the BBC doesn’t re-introduce Hughie Green’s Clapometer to turn the damned programme into a fully-fledged game-show. The other night I stumbled on an episode by mistake, and found myself hooting like a chimpanzee at every wave of clapping at an oh-so-sincere recitation of the “line to take”.

Game-shows or reality TV masquerading as debates are no way to select a leader. Much more effective are one-on-one interviews by skilled inquisitors, though not necessarily those who delight in interrupting the interviewee at every opportunity. Interviewing is hideously difficult. The trick is allowing the interviewee to express ideas while preventing them from evading difficult questions.

But in their infinite wisdom, broadcasters and political establishments in both countries seem to think that having ten hopefuls beat the crap out of each other on live TV is the way to go.

Think about it. Do you want leaders who rely on their wits and their gut instinct, or those who take a deep breath and think before they act? If you want the former, then you elect Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. If the latter, you go for someone like Obama or Gordon Brown. Recent presidents and their British counterparts  have made mistakes, but only the most virulent Trump opponent would have to admit that whether by accident or design, he has a few positive achievements to his name, even though most of them can be expressed in the negative – not bombing North Korea, not bombing Iran (yet), and, arguably, not allowing China to make further inroads into the US economy. As for Gordon Brown, whatever his flaws, we should be eternally grateful for his steadiness in dealing with the 2008 financial crisis.

As far as I’m concerned, the best politicians are those who are able to think at two speeds – fast and slow, as defined by the great economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Where there’s a bias one way or another, you’re in for trouble.

Debates, zingers and all, that test only one mode of thinking, are a poor indicator of the future success of a president or prime minister. When fast thinkers also have manic, obsessive or sociopathic tendencies, the danger is even greater. But though I’m biased towards the tortoise over the hare, slow thinking can also lead to indecision and inertia.

Which is why I reckon that when we select our leaders, sure, we should allow them to debate. But just as a CV is far from an infallible indicator of future performance, so are the qualities on show in in televised slapping contests.

With that in mind, here are three ways in which leadership contests might produce winners less likely to blow up the planet.

First, candidates should be asked to sit in an empty room with no aides and no phones, and write a two thousand word essay on a policy issue not of their choice, ending with a recommendation of a way forward based on their analysis. Their input, which would be a test of their slow thinking abilities, should then be made available to the public.

As a further test, they should not only face the inquisitor’s chair, but also that of the psychiatrist. A battery of tests designed to identify latent personality disorders that might have a bearing on their ability to function in public office might spare us from a leader who gets a little twitchy around the nuclear button. After all, if a leader is required to undergo a physical health check, why not include mental health?

And while we’re at it, given the age of some of the US presidential candidates, would it not make sense to throw in a test for early symptoms of Alzheimers?

None of these suggestions are likely to gain traction any time soon, but isn’t it a little strange that executives and senior civil servants are subjected to a rigorous selection process, yet our politicians are judged so heavily on their ability to deliver well-crafted zingers at each other?

From → Media, Politics, UK, USA

  1. While reading this I found myself thinking about the TV series Weekend World. To watch the current crop of candidates facing a Walden style grilling would, I think, prove to be very enlightening indeed.

    • I think you’re right. Bwian would have had a field day. Of today’s inquisitors, Emily Maitlis is one of the most effective. It’s interesting how much more informal she is than the Waldens and Days of yore – for example, extensive use of interviewees’ first names. Makes you feel like a fly on the wall at a well-lubricated dinner party.

      • It took me a moment to place Emily Maitlis and I ended up looking her up on Wikipedia.

        Now I can’t hep wondering whether the fact that she’s the only Newsnight presenter not to have attended a private school is relevant.

      • Interesting thought, though I suspect that robust conversations at the family dinner table might also have been instrumental.

      • I’m sure they were.

        What I was trying to get is more of a diversity point. Many MPs are the products of private education, and many presenters are also privately educated. Consequently it can easily become the case that political interviews become an exercise in public schoolboys talking to public schoolboys about issues that interest public schoolboys, which can leave assumptions unchallenged and questions unasked.

        I can’t claim that this is an entirely original thought — I recall someone else noting that Eddie Mair (son of a bus driver) was one of very few presenters to give Boris Johnson a hard time.

      • You could be right. It’s an interesting observation. As a product of private education myself, I like to think I’m capable at looking “beyond my background”, but perhaps I should think again. I’d be interested to see some analysis or research on this, if you’ve come across any. S

      • I don’t have any specific research to hand, although Chris Dillow does a pretty good job of applying the concept of ambiguity aversion to political attitudes here.

        As a more general point, I think it’s true that we all have our prejudices and assumptions and will tend to look for evidence that confirms what we already think. It is, of course, possible to look beyond these assumptions, but to do so we need to first recognise that we have these assumptions and seek out information and points of view that challenge them.

      • Hi Paul. Thanks for putting me on to Chris Dillow’s blog. He’s clearly much smarter than me! Though he might be right about Tory attitudes towards Johnson, if you applied the same theory, then why did millions of over 50’s, including many people I know, vote for Brexit, the most scary project of a lifetime? Only perhaps because they bought the idea that it would be as easy as pie. Interesting also that the Dutch psychologist Hofstede concluded in his study of regional and national cultures that we Brits are pretty relaxed about ambiguity. But that was a while ago, and perhaps our cultural DNA has mutated since then. A fascinating subject, with lot’s of life in it yet!

  2. While this concept may be useful in understanding some of the factors involved in people voting for Brexit, I don’t think it comes close to explaining the vote overall.

    You are almost certainly right to observe that many people thought that leaving the EU would be both easy and painless, and this raises the question of why the media (and the Remain campaign, for that matter) gave the Leave campaigners such a relatively easy ride.

    I hadn’t heard of Hofstede. I shall have to see if I can find some understandable (to me) summaries of his work.

  3. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Beware intrusive apostrophe above, S! The best zingers have got to come from President Zelensky(y) of Ukraine… Trump met his match there – two comedians, one of whom is funny!

    • Thanks for the guidance! I haven’t heard Zelensky in action, but I look forward to Trump debating with Warren, should she make it that far. S

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