Repitition (I): Side A

Although not unexpectedly, it is most unusual that cautions and objections to the televised debates of candidates for senators and representatives have to be repeated, like the elections themselves, only six months later.

Already spring of this year saw four electoral calls (general, European, municipal, autonomic) in April and May which provokes an indigestion to the benevolent spectator of this kind of exchange. This time the boredom comes, if perhaps, restrained only by being the shortest campaign, although more disconcerting, since 1977.

A campaign in which there seems to be only one debate, pushed by television like the finale of Eurovision or a clash of the Champions. But the viewer has seen at least five on three different channels and his observations are dictated by all of them. This article does not want to be the only one, but only the first of a series.

With three main criteria: judging on the basis of what (better) candidates should and can do in a debate, the comparison with the performance of their rivals throughout the debate and, finally, the consistency between what they have done in the debate and their rhetorical strategies needed to convey their messages and programs.

Side A

So, although this album is scratched, very scratched, more from failures than successes, has its side A and side B.

On the A side, last night November 4 in Madrid in the Crystal Pavilion of the Casa de Campo in the Television Academy, playing on almost all the channels, the debate was composed entirely of men. These men all displayed traits of alpha males and, as was noted, in the debate the bearded to the hairless (3 to 2), the rights to the left (3 to 2 also) won numerically. There was only one that was ruled out and it was not from the extreme left but from the radical right.

Worse than the debate

Such a leaden or lively perspective was not politically resolved at all. This has been very bad for this occasion, the most counterproductive to remember: the pessimism of the spectator voter does not come from having attended a distribution of fire and ashes in which, however, has been able to move to vote and move the vote, but to a confirmation that, even by voting, given the distribution and division of the options, the blockade, to what it seems, will persist. Something depressing, not because of the debate itself, but because it does not show any governable solution.

However, still in its negative qualities, the debate deployed for a few moments a liveliness that is not negligible and a number of paradoxes greater than that of contestants in the fray.

Liability of verbal formulas

Who talked about governing the “most voted for list?” Casado? No, Sánchez. Who reverted every two times that of the “constitutional order?” Rivera? No, Abascal. Who referred to “the cowardly right”? Abascal? No, Sánchez. Who does not mention the Constitution? Casado? No, Iglesias. Who said “yes, we can?” Iglesias? Yes, and Rivera too!

But Obama said it first, it could be argued … It is notable, though not very important at the moment, I think, that the formulas of American politics now matter to them, Vox, some of whose claims seemed straight out of Trump’s campaign manuals and Bannon (for example, in regard to Bruelas). Already in an earlier debate, Espinosa de los Monteros spoke of “regaining control”, picking up the expression, as misleading as it is effective, of Farage, Gove and Johnson in the badly frayed Brexit process.

It remains for the record, in addition, that Vox has taken out its four main leaders (Abascal, Espinosa Ortega Smith and Monasterio), to engage in debates and their dialectical results have been stimulating for the formation and worthy of a detailed analysis. We will return to it.

Strange methods to stay in office

On the contrary, the painful spectacle of the final part of the debate, in which an acting president of the government refuses to answer, questioned and summarily interrogated by Rivera and Casado and, bordering on the passive-aggressive, does not look up from his papers, doing as he underlines and writes, and leaves the mess going on to other issues, confirms something of concern: Pedro Sánchez lacks speaking ability. Or he didn’t want to exercise it, which isn’t much better. And to a greater extent, it is not worrying as much about what happens in this kind of debates as about the (future) parliamentary activity.

Rivera does not take off the resource of graphic elements and supporting materials, indoctrinating even with the cobblestone, and providing great fun for social networks.

But for that (it also happened to Casado) you have to make sure that the television production will pick it up with the right technique. In the first debate of candidates in RTVE the previous Thursday (October 31), the camera did not focus on the foreground the evidence that some wielded. They neither saw nor read each other. In this, the camera reached them, but the lighting was dazzlingly reflective and hardly anything could be deciphered.

Iglesias came with a formula that was successful in his last appearance: the constructive motion to destructive debate, the virtuous circle. That is why it is misunderstood that his “golden minute” technique was so clumsy, ideal to deconcentrate, or disconcert the recipient of his message, when referring to a particular case, by exemplary that is created, to a dramatic “piece of life ” And that when it had already been seen to fail in that effort, and at that same minute, Irene Montero and Noelia Vera with the same approach (plus the one launched to Florentino Pérez) the previous week.

Casado has refined his ways, but he lacks a winning formula: the one he has is also lacking. At least avoid all errors, surely of character, of its spokesman, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, model in so many things that should not be done in a debate, but this will focus on the next installment.

Pablo Carbajosa

Head of Rhetoric at Proa Comunicación

Why it is Important to Learn how to Debate

Marco Bolognini, founding partner of Maio Legal, highlights the importance of debate skills and the need for countries like Spain or Italy to reinforce their practice in the education system. In addition, he details why the skills that that he learned are important due to the level of debate in the legal field.

Doubles on Scorched Earth

Situated at an intermediate yet uncertain (and apparently capricious) point between the parliamentary debate and the party rally, the television debates have been incrementing in multiples of two: two debates for the frontrunners, two debates for other candidates (for Barcelona, for example, on RTVE and TV3), the debates conventionally between two have now been between four or between six, and until the election year itself a double round between April 28 and May 26 seems much more likely.

There have been even debates, yes, also odd ones for the naysayers (and the “no means no” folk), the denials, the negativity, the exclusions notwithstanding. There have been debates, or rather moments during the debates, which looked typical of doubles matches between the left and the right. Of tennis, perhaps (although without saving the smashes), only not on clay. By the accumulation of bile, misdirected energy, real or feigned animosity, outright rudeness and pompous arrogance, these debates seemed rather like doubles on scorched earth. I don’t despise that one English word, which I heard a British professor say with a look of disgust that embodied its meaning, to summarize what these debates have truly been: nasty.

Alas, with all the anticipation that they stirred, the experience has only led to a disappointing paradox: the more necessary they seem, the more oversaturated and corrupted we become once they are through. The narrow-minded suggestion, emphasized by Pablo Iglesias, that the electoral debates must be bound and regulated by law is a symptom of that very Hispanic peculiarity of wanting to solve by legal means with small print what ought to belong to the life-giving spirit of the democratic arena.

If this demand to hold debates is truly so imperative, such a spirit cannot be expressed only by party officials who routinely or habitually appear on television networks on any night to campaign and say everything and more, but should rather be based on requirements which can’t really be codified yet constitute at the very least a minimum standard of civility. In short: no transgressions should be tolerated that in any other form of public discourse would serve to terminate the act.

But if clashes have been so rough it’s because they constitute a very pure expression of something as extremely murky as it is widespread: the destructive ways of the Spanish dialectic (it is a saying). Conceived as a strategy (or so it seems), this sensationalism and shrillness threaten to conquer the playing field, but have they succeeded? Note that simply answering yes or no will seem very ambiguous at best.

The field of public discourse is divided and sectarian, and in media it’s as such or even more than in politics itself, in a way that not only are these tendencies transmitted onto television sets, but moreso, as if in a loop, they have achieved continuity in the media itself.  Therefore, instead of a unanimous attitude of the press being repulsive, each one is more attentive in order for their sponsors come out well to be able to declare them something like victorious.  Sometimes, as it has been observed, in stark contrast to the opinion of pundits.

That is why the rather vivid comparison of television with “entrails” has been so frequent, moreso with Mediaset than Atresmedia, or that it resembles screaming in a nightclub while the music is blasting on full.

At a glance, in a hyperconnected society, the fastest solution always seems the most efficient. However, applied to the societal sphere, this recipe just doesn’t work like that. It would be as much as equating giving a concussion to convincing someone, unless that other isn’t persuaded to punch back not even with reason.  Some have acted like the Allied generals in the First World War, with the confidence that carpet bombing annihilates the enemy to allow an advance into no man’s land. Only that this adversary is comfortably crouched and doesn’t hesitate to respond with machine-gun fire: less forceful, but more deadly. Alas, they can’t even occupy trenches, not even reaching melee combat.

By contrast, venturing on to renounce these behaviours, as did Pablo Iglesias in his second debate, runs the risk of falling into irrelevance, wanting to make an example of the counterexample. Also, notice that for this he even had to supply the moderators with their reprimands. It was another striking feature: the moderators were so disoriented in such an overheated environment, so anxious that the contestants did not feel bound by any corset of courtesy, that the debates ended up falling apart. It is revealing that they didn’t receive later the reproaches that were directed towards Manuel Campo Vidal on similar occasions in 2015 and 2016.

We would add that among the most unusual has been the decision to have two debates in successive days between the spearheads of the four main parliamentary groups, and that this was due, above all, to an accidental stroke of serendipity, a reasonable decision by the Central Electoral Board: leave Vox out in the debate scheduled at Atresmedia. Reasonable, not for the technical criterion of lacking parliamentary representation, but for the comparative grievance by others who did. This kept Pedro Sanchez’s opportunism in shackles, as someone who embraces the virtues of public television only when the conjunction of private stations doesn’t come out to his liking. Forcibly restrained: had to go, had no other option, to both debates, such circumstances influencing his strategic conservatism in his manner of debating and in his poorer tendencies.

No less extravagant was being able to attend a debate in which two candidates fiercely attacked at first breath none other than the moderator! .They further contested not even the moderator’s role in the debate but even his position, handing him his letter of resignation already written! It happened in Barcelona, with Inés Arrimadas and Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo in front of Vicent Sanchis, the director of TV3. It was legitimate and perhaps necessary to ask that Sanchis not moderate the debate for being rejected and under prosecution from the parliament, as if the station didn’t have other journalists. It shouldn’t be ruled out that Sanchis used the debate to re-embellish his tarnished image. But once these things are accepted, you just have to adhere to the rules of the book.

And alas, another paradox: the political vice of abounding in falsehoods without qualms, so stark and frequent in this year’s debates, has stimulated in the media groups of fact-checkers to constantly prove the veracity of information ( from El objetivo of the La Sexta to La Vanguardia, to highlight the most prominent).”

However, offering these moral-political admonitions is not an obstacle to managing at the same time sound, measured advice of a decidedly technical nature. It’s because personal perplexities are not limited in this case to the hackneyed “what politicians we have” (with signs not of admiration but rather of resignation) but to an interrogative and surprised “but, what kind of advisors do these people have?! ”

First of all, an objective problem becomes clear: increasing the number of contenders in a sea of undecided voters implies that candidates not only have to persuade, but that they must begin by seeking out their voters amidst that enormous mass, just as voters for their preferred choice.  We must imagine strategies to that effect in order to excel without incinerating the whole debate into ashes.

Second, it is amazing that the last speech of each debate, the so-called “golden minute”, which ought to be resonant to end on a good impression, has been so utterly misused. The rhetorical similes that aspire to be unequivocally memorable, obscenely simplistic and awkwaredly pre-programmed rather than embodied by already unnatural actors – Rajoy’s “girl”, Rivera’s “Do you listen to the silence?” may end up flirting with the outright the ridiculous and are A-grade meme material. Interrupting by the urge to strike the last blows, as happened to Casado, is not exactly advisable either. That minute should be so rehearsed that it looks natural, doing without papers, free from any distraction. It has to be firm, impeccable and inevitable in the best sense of the word.

Third, equally striking has been the use and abuse of the so-called “visual elements” – framed pictures, doctoral theses, books, rolls of paper, graphics and statistics without an accredited source – that have splattered the debates spontaneously.  Susceptible to this mishandling was anything that could fit in the hand or in the meager podium (it was incredible how many things did). These have also been justly ridiculed.

All of which leads to the conclusion that, dialectical tricks aside, the debates require more professionalism and eloquence, devoid the rhetorical emptiness to which have, unfortunately, grown accustomed to. It must be understood that debates can be the occasion to present some ideological formula well devised by the one who intends to be “leader”, but we must devise a consistent strategy and persist in constructive ways: the virtuous methods seem initially weaker at first, but if they do take root they are unequivocally more solid.

To conclude, we should note that although this analysis in nature was devised quite a while before knowing any sort general election results, I invite the reader to consider to what extent does the way in which the political leaders proceed influence their respective performance and results.

This is just the end of the first act. The debates of the second, surely, may be less harsh, but not necessarily better. We’ll see.


Pablo Carbajosa 

Officer responsible for the Public Speaking Area of Proa Comunicación and coordinator of the Debate Club at the Comillas Pontifical University of Madrid