TV debates are anti-democracy

Image: Stephen Sutcliffe


The current form of debate reaffirms the vices of undemocratic power devices

First of all, a warning: we will not deal here with the question of knowing or predicting whether television debates change votes by increasing or decreasing the possibility of each candidate being elected in the first or second round. We know that the issue is controversial and we prefer to wait for the results of the polls.

At this moment of historical importance for the country in which we dream of the return of full democracy, it seems to us of crucial importance to reflect on the traditional forms of electoral campaigns in what they bring as a means of information for voters to exercise their right to vote in full consciousness and freedom.

One of these forms is the television debate and, in order to deal with it as it is practiced in Brazil, we will take as reference the last presidential debate of the first round in Globo. It can be said that the format adopted by the “Globo quality standard” constitutes an analysis paradigm since it exposes in a pure way the essence of the device, without the stumbling blocks of other networks where, for example, a presenter can make a mistake. tone when speaking as if we were facing an entertainment program and not a presidential debate. It is unanimous that the tone and the “Bonner way of being” are impeccable for the genre in question.

Since it is the “debate genre”, we are facing a discursive device in which the modes of distribution of the word in space and time affect what is said and actively participate in the production of its meaning. We have here an exemplary case of what the philosopher of language Mikhaïl Bakhtin designates by the concept of chronotope: the space-time unit that scans and organizes the narratives.[I]

Let's start with time. Allowing just a minute or two for a candidate to argue is something that impedes the development of any argument. Even more so if we count the surprise factor. Each time he is surprised by being summoned, by the theme of the question and by the interlocutor assigned to him. Thus, when he does not have time to think, he is encouraged to launch some ideas and phrases prepared beforehand that serve more or less for every situation, which, in itself, already subtracts part of the authenticity of his speech and contributes to the repetitive character. of your arguments. It is something like an oral exam in high school with the difference that the student is given a minimum amount of time to expose his memorizing.

The temporal limitation is aggravated by the abrupt microphone cuts that algorithmically obey the marked seconds. We are there in the discursive figure of cogitus interruptus which we have taken the liberty of naming by deriving it from the well-known expression, the intercourse interrupted. The candidate returns to his seat and perhaps prepares to complete the reasoning when he is called again and if the topic allows. At the same time, he must prepare himself for the new surprises if this is not a contradiction between the terms.

It should not, however, be thought that the cogitus interruptus it is a figure of speech that only prevents, represses, subtracts. It is also a facilitator and inciter of a certain type of speech: one that, precisely, is not of the order of reasoning and argumentation. The spasmodic speech of disconnected and abrupt sentences is perfectly compatible with the temporal device in question. He favors speeches such as, for example, those of Jair Bolsonaro and priests fake. Spurts of accusations and insults need no time to elaborate.

To continue the reflection, let us take President Lula's speech, which is the discursive antithesis of Jair Bolsonaro. It has the characteristics of what is conventionally called a flowing speech. Like a creek that rises from a source, it follows its course to enrich itself with new waters until it swells and flows into an imposing waterfall. It is Lula's already famous discursive power that the device of the televised debate impedes. We were thus deprived of the emotion that it could cause us and we left with varied interpretations about Lula's supposed fatigue, a supposed health fragility, etc. After all, where did that strength go? The speaker is then attributed with a problem that is not his, but the device's.

Let us now move on to the question of space as it was configured in the paradigm adopted here, which is the debate on Globo network. We saw a big space clean, stripped down and meticulous to confirm the station's style in its productions. The candidates sitting at a distance, in relation to the presenter, were asked to get up, come to the tribune and, at the end, return to their seats. Several aspects deserve to be analyzed. In the first place, by making the candidate move each time, it seems to want to mark a discipline and a ritualization that would supposedly guarantee order and obedience to the rules during the debate.

As for the space of the tribune, it contrasts with this regulatory distance in that it puts candidates face to face, in a space of small distance that forces them to be in frontal proximity. As if the message were: now you are going to talk eye to eye. That this position can contribute to dialogue and interlocution is debatable. We know of other debate scenes where the candidates speak perfectly to each other at a reasonable distance from each other. There, it looked more like a fight space evoking a cockfight in which the animals are thrown into the arena, very close to each other, while the public watches and cheers for the death of one of them. Which is not just a metaphor since we are witnessing uncontrolled insults that, if they did not lead to actual violence, consummated a violence never seen in past elections.

At this point, it is necessary to address the place of the mediator, in this case, William Bonner. Its physical distance from the candidates denotes the place of mediation, of authority responsible for the smooth running of the debate. If there is nothing to say about the conduct of the presenter in question, much could be reflected on the nature of the mediation that the device of the television debate establishes. To summarize, the authority exercised by a presenter cannot go beyond that whose power is limited to enforcing the rules. He is the authorized representative of the regulation, but not of the law since it is not for him to act in such a way as to distinguish truth from falsehood. When addressing candidates, he can tell them to sit down, tell them to stand up, tell them to be quiet.

The scene is almost school-like: So-and-so, come to the board! Get back to your chair! However, it is difficult to think of the authority of the TV presenter as an equivalent of the teacher in the classroom. Once again, the truth/lie distinction is the prerogative of science and knowledge and the teacher must be able to make it operate within the discourses. Thus, if we want to maintain the analogy between the debate scene and the classroom scene, the fairest equivalent for the TV presenter would be the janitor.

By having a power that boils down to regulation, nothing can be done when fighting cocks try to destroy themselves with the weapon of lies. A last-minute candidate appears dressed as a priest and it is impossible to know whether or not he is what he says he is. One candidate accuses the other of having stolen one million, his interlocutor doubles the bet and accuses him of having stolen two million and so on, without the spectator being able to know who the liar is, one of them or both. We reached refinement in the last debate when one candidate accuses the other of the crime that he himself committed. It was the case of Jair Bolsonaro accusing Lula of letting people die from lack of oxygen.

Again, care must be taken not to deduce from the above a symmetry in the damage caused to different candidates. It is to Jair Bolsonaro that the impossibility of distinguishing between lies and truth matters. He belongs like Trump to the class of tyrants jesters as well theorized Christian Salmon.[ii] This type of postmodern tyrant feeds and feeds his troops from the degradation of the system and institutions. They work to ridicule, mock and degrade democracy. For a Bolsonarist, as well as for a Trumpist, it doesn't matter that information is a lie. In most cases, he knows it's a lie. Because the lie adds: it is worth the strength of the blow delivered against the "enemy". The more slanderous the information, the more it disarms the “enemy” and his followers.

The appearance of equal conditions for the best to win, underlined by the strict regulations, is only appearance since lying, farce and debauchery are not prohibited. The discursive device of the TV debate, as staged by the Globe, has its perverse functioning disguised by spatial grandeur and temporal rigor. Space and time are articulated in this scene with a revisited futuristic aesthetic, reminiscent of Fritz Lang's expressionism in the film Metropolis.

In the camera shot in which the spectator sees what Bonner sees, with the candidates in the distance sitting politely and ready to be called into the arena, the true center of power is revealed. Invisible as it is, panoptic by tradition, it is the power of the TV network that calls the shots. The network creates the rules, creates the devices, creates the events and we know that, throughout our history, it has even been able to create candidates that were then unknown, make favorite candidates that the whole world knew disappear and decide the outcome of elections.

As for the question of knowing which form of debate would break with the vices of the current device of power, it would demand a broader reflection and assumed by the collectives that militate for new times. May democracy return to full force in this country and that past errors, often fatal, may be corrected, notably those related to the power of the hegemonic and anti-democratic media.

*Marilia Amorim is a retired professor at the Institute of Psychology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and at the University of Paris VIII. She authored, among other books by Petit Traité de la Bêtise Contemporaine [A Short Treatise on Contemporary Stupidity] (Ed. Eres) (


[I] BAKHTIN, M. Theory of the Novel II. The forms of time and the chronotope, translation by Paulo Bezerra, São Paulo, 2018, Ed. 34.

[ii] salmon, C. La tyrannie des bouffons. Sur le pouvoir grotesque. Paris, 2020, Ed. LLL (Les Liens qui Libèrent).

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