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Posted on Fri, Oct 5, 2012 : 9:47 a.m.

Election 2012: Debates or American Idol auditions?

By Wayne Baker

Thumbnail image for 1005ov Ottawa Illinois site of Lincoln Douglas Debate 01.jpg

A more-than-life-size monument to the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on Aug. 21, 1858. A crowd of 10,000 showed up to hear the candidates debate for a seat in the U.S. Senate in Washington Squre, Ottawa, Ill.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing the election.

Interest in this year’s first presidential debate may be waning already, but I’m still thinking about it. Yesterday, I asked you who won Wednesday night’s debate. Romney did, according to most of the post-debate rehash, commentary and spin. Even Democrats said he did. I agree that Romney was more effective, polished. Romney looked good; Obama looked tired.

What puzzles me is what a “win” means in a presidential debate. In a real debate, both sides make well-reasoned, factual, and passionate arguments for their point of view. Erroneous facts will undermine a debater. But there wasn’t a whole lot of accuracy in the facts cited during the debate, according to the fact checkers. Rather, there seems to be plenty of what I talked about on Wednesday: Pinocchio politics.

So what is really going on? Conservative columnist Cal Thomas offered an interpretation in a back-and-forth opinion piece with his liberal friend Bob Beckel. Here is what Thomas said:

“These dog-and-pony shows resemble auditions for American Idol rather than serious policy discussions. Judgments are made based on glibness and other superficialities that give viewers (and radio listeners) few insights into core beliefs. People familiar with the background of these events know that answers have been focused-grouped to see what words will best appeal to voters. No wonder people are so cynical about politics and politicians.”

Presidential debates are not really debates and haven’t been for a long time. They cited the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates as an example of a real one. I consulted the Commission on Presidential Debates to learn more.

Seven debates were held during August, September and October of 1858. Each debate was three hours long. The first to speak got 60 minutes. The second got 90 minutes. The first then got another 30 minutes. Slavery and the union were the main topics. Now, I don’t know if they engaged in Pinocchio politics, but this format seems to have the makings of a real debate.

Do you agree that the presidential debates are more like American Idol?

Would you like to see a real debate?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at ourvaluesproject@gmail.com or on Facebook.