Presidential Debates as Fairy Tale


There was no shortage of analogies regarding how Obama needed to perform during last night’s debate. My favorite was that of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Drawing on a porridge-testing scene from the book, the pundit argued that Obama could not be “too hot” (read too aggressive) or “too cold” (read not aggressive), but had to be “just right.” I was struck by the complete absurdity – and sociological importance – of the comparison. While the analogy may be an interesting political teaser (and allow the commentator to come out as a political soothsayer regardless of what actually happens in the debate), it is ridiculous. Whether one thinks Obama performed well last night is a matter of personal taste and opinion – not unlike Goldilocks’ choice of porridge, chair, and bed.

I say that the analogy is sociologically important because it reminds us that, like fairy tales, debates are contrived. I am not referring to the candidates themselves, but to the assessments of who won and who lost the debate. Media outlets provide content for our consumption – and satisfaction. Happy consumers are returning customers. This is why we get the banal commentary we do on network stations. Mainstream news outlets literally cannot afford to scare off the viewing audience by seeming politically biased in their commentary. As a result, ALL of the network stations commented on the “tension” in the room last night, the “hostility” between the two candidates, and how each candidate did a good job appealing to their base. FOX and CNN will offer more ideologically driven assessments, much to the delight of their viewers and advertisers.

So what is the average American supposed to do? First, remember that this is theatre and all good shows involve truth, lies, and, like fairy tales, moral lessons. If you need a break or want facts, check out, which does a decent job checking out the statements of our esteemed candidates. Second, clear your political palette daily. Political junkfood – debates, commentary, and advertisements – need to be consumed in moderation. Go to PBS or NPR to better information. These venues do not have all the bells, whistles, and glitter, which make it easier to focus on what is being said (rather than how). Finally, turn it off and think about the information you have. One problem with media writ large is that we get information cut into digestible bites. As a result, it is difficult to see the connections among positions or to understand a candidate’s larger agenda. If you don’t want to be disappointed next year, think beyond single issues – connect the dots.


About Double take Sociology

I am a Professor of Sociology, a Research Associate in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, and an Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Community Engagement in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. To find links to my research, visit
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