The Power of an Empty Podium

The Republican National Committee and Fox News say there won't be an empty podium on the stage during the Iowa Republican debate to symbolize the absence of Donald Trump. The implication is that that's not fair game. In 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to appear in a League of Women Voters debate with Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, so a podium stood in for him. Apparently attitudes have changed since then.

But the podium question shows how significant the decision is to use or not to use that prop.

Why is an empty podium such a powerful symbol? After all, the candidates can still eviscerate their absent rival whether there's an empty physical space there or not. Clint Eastwood didn't really need to put an empty chair next to him at the Republican convention in 2012 to carry on his one-sided debate with President Obama, but he clearly saw the dramatic advantage of an object that focuses the imagination.

Psychotherapists often use an empty chair to signify an important person in their client's life. There's a neat bit of neuroscience here. Ask me to pretend I'm talking to, say, a deceased parent with whom I have some unfinished business and I might hesitate. Put a chair in front of me and the brain seems to have a much easier time exercising the imagination.

Even more basic, when a parent or child has died a family might well leave their usual place empty, perhaps a chair at the dining room table or their bedroom as a kind of shrine. An empty throne signifies the absence of the monarch, often a dangerous circumstance for a leaderless state. Thus Americans were chilled when President Kennedy's funeral included the traditional riderless horse, a weekend when some feared for the future of the country.

The podium question shows how much theater and psychology there is in politics. As if we needed a reminder of that in this election cycle.