Reasons Presidential Debates Are Irrelevant
Considering that every element of our democracy is at least a little bit stupid, the presidential debates seem like the most defensible part. Forget about all of the misleading ads and copy-and-paste rallies, debates are where the candidates are forced into a duel of ideas! Well, they could be that. But the way these debates are held today renders them almost completely pointless. See ...
The Debates Are Patterned After 1950s Quiz Shows
You might think our debates are part of a storied tradition. The Greeks used to debate, and Lincoln had a couple of famous debates, right? So aren't these current debates an attempt to build on all that?
Sort of. But when people tried to put such debates together back in the days of radio, they faced obstacles from election laws and the campaigns themselves. After a couple more decades, when they chose the current setup, they based the events on a popular TV genre of the day: quiz shows. This let networks reuse sets, and provided audiences with a format they were already familiar with. You can see the similarity even today, hence the jokes comparing the events to Jeopardy!:
When you realize debates are based on quiz shows by design, you suddenly understand their many nonsensical quirks. Why is everyone standing, instead of sitting like most civilized people do at multi-hour events? (These Austrian candidates look much more comfortable, even without any of them being septuagenarians.) Why are there so many short questions, rather than a few broad topics followed by long responses that can really dig deep into issues?
And most significantly, why does precious little of each event consist of candidates actually clashing by countering each other's arguments and then responding further to those counterarguments? (You know, debating.) We're stuck in this format wherein a host asks a question, a contestant tries to answer it, and then we move on to the next question. That's fine for seeing who can answer "Who won the 1972 Oscar for Best Picture?" but not so much for hashing out complex policy and philosophical differences.
There are absolutely alternatives to this format. The CBS network executive who designed the first debates later regretted his choice and proposed that candidates talk to each other at length with no limits (an idea eventually depicted, maybe a little too idealistically, in a special live episode of The West Wing). Other proposed formats involve changing the moderators' role in other ways, or letting candidates read each other's statements in advance and prepare rebuttals. But the parties resist any new format that could potentially leave candidates more vulnerable. Better to let them give their standard sound bites and quickly move on. Speaking of which ...
Timed Responses Are Terrible For In-Depth Discussion
Probably every organized debate you've seen has some kind of time limit on answers. Otherwise, the winner would probably be whoever speaks the most. (Keep that in mind the next time someone calls an internet personality a "skilled debater," when this skill mainly consists of interrupting and silencing opponents.) So time limits do make things "fair," in the sense that candidates are given an equal chance to "win." But it's not fair to the audience, who's there to actually try to learn something.
Think about how a good journalist will conduct interviews. To get anything substantial, the interviewer should cut the candidate off when they talk about something pointless, and when they finally hit on what matters, they must press for more details. You can't just ask a single question and leave a timer running for one minute. During the next debate, I wish a candidate would say (as they admit to thinking), "We've been talking about my health care plan this entire campaign, but you want me to explain why it's best now in 45 seconds? How about instead I explain why you should go fuck yourself?"
So candidates in debates often lack time. But here's the weird thing: They also have too much time. One minute is not enough to go into detail about anything, so the candidate will usually default to a couple of prepared bullet points, which takes maybe 20 seconds. And unless they carefully prepared one-minute blocks about every topic possible (look back, and you'll see Mitt Romney was freakishly good at that), they'll then have 40 completely empty seconds, which they'll fill with whatever comes into their head, no matter how unconnected it is with the question.
One proposed solution to this is called the chess clock. Candidates could take roughly as long as they want over their answers, but this would be deducted from the total time they're allowed to speak all night. This would both let them finish actual thoughts and strongly discourage them from pointless padding. If you're succinct throughout, your reward is that you get to just deliver your stump speech at the end. Or let everyone go home early, it's your choice.
Related: 5 Common American Political Beliefs That Don't Add Up
Why Praise One Candidate For Another's Fuckups?
Fuckups are the best parts of debates, the only parts that justify holding live events rather than everyone uploading prepared remarks to YouTube. When a speaker, taken by surprise, is exposed as fake, corrupt, or ignorant, we think this makes them a worse candidate, and we're right. When this comes thanks to a direct exchange with a rival, we say the rival won the debate, as though the rival is a better candidate than before just for having initiated that exchange. That's nonsensical. A candidate's team scripting a good attack doesn't make the candidate themselves smart or qualified. Yet the debate format has convinced us that there must be a winner and there must be a loser. You know, like a quiz show.
By the way, we could get many more candidate fuckups (i.e. useful information) if we un-muzzle the moderators and let them question candidates more aggressively. Suspend the debate rules in a way opposite to that West Wing suggestion I mentioned before, letting the moderators interrupt the candidates constantly. Think to those videos you occasionally see of an interviewer truly grilling a politician, except instead of critiquing one candidate, the moderators hit them all. Elections are zero-sum, but debates don't have to be. I have an idealistic version in which all the candidates lose. (And the electorate wins through becoming more informed, I guess.)
Related: 3 Things That Make Political Discussions Nearly Impossible
Facts Don't Care About Your Debating Skills
As we can see, most of these problems come back to this whole idea of needing to declare a "winner" and "loser" of a debate. And debates are competitive in other settings, often conducted by student clubs (and prisoners, believe it or not). The activity helps participants in all kinds of ways. It teaches them to organize their thoughts, analyze arguments, and see others' points of view. The one thing it absolutely does not do is teach anyone in the audience which side is right.
Competitive debaters know this. They know this because often, the debater who wins was assigned a position they personally believe is wrong. Debaters who can only argue their own beliefs aren't very good debaters at all, and a debate in which one side is objectively correct is considered unfair. Some things are ripe for debate, while others are not. In fact, the knowledge that "who debated better" and "what's right" are unrelated may be the single most valuable lesson that debate can offer anyone. Look at a clip from a recent Democratic primary debate:
The moderator asks Elizabeth Warren to respond to top economists who say her proposed tax hike will stifle growth and investment. She replies, "They're wrong," lists a bunch of things we can spend money on, and says that'll fuel growth. This exchange, boring as it is to recount, is about as good as the Q&A debate format can get. The moderator challenged the candidate and invited her to argue against a point. And even so, I came away learning nothing.
Some people said the tax cut will hurt the economy, then the candidate said it won't. I, the lay viewer, don't have enough info to decide who's right. Warren could have given the exact same answer if they were talking about an $80 trillion or $800 billion tax hike instead of an $8 trillion one, and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. I need someone else to come in authoritatively and declare some facts to be true and beyond debate. Without that, all I can do is say, "Well, the candidate sounded convincing. So I should believe her? And vote for her?" If she'd sounded unsure or stumbled over her words, would that have been a sign that she's wrong?
Related: The Surprising Elite Truth Behind America's Political Divide
Debates Reward All Of The Wrong Attributes
The heart of the problem is that most ways a candidate wins a debate say nothing about how good a president they'd be. For instance, analysts always talk afterward about assertiveness, meaning a candidate's ability to inject themselves into exchanges or talk over their rivals. This skill is irrelevant to the presidency. When you're president, everyone will let you speak whenever you want. We interpret debate assertiveness as a proxy for how they'd govern ("they made themselves heard tonight, so they'll make sure Putin hears them too!"). But that's not how politics works, and you don't have to speak loudly to carry a big stick.
Analysts also talk about how a candidate was "persuasive" in their argument. Which means what? If they source their claims on the fly, the audience doesn't have time to check them (political YouTube personalities love this about live debates). So we're essentially saying, "When Trump said the refugees are secret ISIS, his tone of voice and manner really sold it. This means he won and should be president."
But do we really want a president who can persuade us even when they're wrong? Isn't that like asking whether we want a car salesman who's really good at upselling or a drug dealer whose stock is extra addictive and deadly? If your oration and persuasion get people to not just follow your ideas but follow you personally, you might be the Messiah, but there's an equally good chance you're the Antichrist.
Political campaigns will draw voters to whoever's more enchanting, there's no getting around that. But the media should work to counter these cults of personality instead of encouraging them by hosting competitions to see who can speak prettiest. Put them in a situation where their charisma is stripped away. Have them do the debate nude. Or make them eat increasingly hot chicken wings the whole time. Or both. I don't know. Figure it out.
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For more, check out Why Presidential Debates Can't Be Honest:
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