The University Record, November 21, 1995

Calm, collected politicians bore the public,
Peter Stearns says

By Carlean Ponder
News and Information Services Intern

Is the American public bored with politics? Peter Stearns thinks so. A historian and lecturer at Carnegie-Mellon University, Stearns recently told an assembly in the Alumni Center that the public has lost interest in politics because of boredom.

Speaking to the Institute for the Humanities' theme "Emotion in the Public Sphere," Stearns said most politics studies don't leave much room for emotional factors even though, historically, emotions have played a major part in politics and are continuing to shape political styles today. As the public changes its mind about what is and what is not an acceptable display of emoti on, political actors, as Stearns termed politicians, find themselves adapting to new public behaviors.

Today's political arena is devoid of emotion compared to earlier eras, Stearns said, noting that the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the late 1850s were characterized by strong displays of emotion.

Lincoln frequently used a great amount of emotion in his debating style to capture the crowd, Stearns said. He would angrily interrupt Douglas whenever he felt Douglas was distorting his character, thereby demonstrating a spontaneous fervor. Lincoln also was accused of staring menacingly into the crowd in search of hecklers and often had to be held back from leaping fr om the platform into the crowd. This type of dramatization appealed to the large numbers who attended the debates and the general public as well.

In contrast, Stearns said, recent political debates, televised since the 1960s, create an entirely different atmosphere for the candidates. Certainly no candidate wants to appear raunchy and unsettled on live television, so those participating take plenty of time for coaching before entering into the debate. Current candidates are asked to respond to questions presented by a neutral third party, when in earlier times the candidates responded directly and emotionally to each other.

Since the politician's main goal now is always to appear calm and collected, Stearns feels the public has lost interest in them and politics because of the boredom they create through their unemotional presence and presentations.