Is it really too much to ask that the political parties (but essentially the Republicans this year) work harder to turn even the primary debates into something a little more deliberative? These debates are structurally flawed and result in confusion and a cacophony of voices that are incoherent and fail to provide a line of reasoning for citizens to observe and learn from. Any debate structure put in place will have its strengths and weaknesses, but any structure will also be better than what we’ve been witnessing.
Running for president is not for sissies. You have to be able to stand up and respond to criticism and make your case to the public. And when attacked the candidate should, ideally anyway, respond with argumentative detail that demonstrates a full command of the issues. The Republican candidates who complained about “gotcha” questions and thought questions about one’s personal behavior and finances were out of line were more interested in manipulating the debate format into kid-glove treatment rather than vigorous engagement. If it seems like a candidate is going to bend under the pressure of a journalist asking him or her a “mean” question, then the candidate might have problems shouldering the burdens of the world.
The structure of the debates is consistent with the structure of the television medium. These 30 second time limits and response times are responsive to the commercial nature of television and the belief in the audience member’s limited processing capabilities. The debate format is not conducive to the engagement of complex issues such as Iraq, healthcare, gun control, race relations, and the like. Consequently, we get sound bite debates with simplistic images of “good guys” and “bad guys” who stand on the stage waiting for the right moment to insert a pre-prepared statement that is semi-related to the issue at hand and typically doesn’t advance an issue.
The 14 Republican candidates have the nerve to pose problematic and sometimes wild ideas such as deporting 10 million people, building walls to seal off immigrants, cutting a 70,000 page tax code to three pages, and then whimpering when they were challenged on these ideas. If these fringe Republican candidates get their way it will only be Fox News who gets to ask them softball questions.
Outline of a Deliberative Format
The following issues must be addressed in order to increase the communicative value of these debates and come closer to the commission’s goals for informing the public and fostering a truly deliberative environment. Read more about related issues in an article by Collier.
- The model of dialogue and reasoned deliberation has always expected the participants to be mutually joined and engaged in the same issue. In other words, they need to be talking about the same thing at the same time. Inserting canned and pre-prepared comments that are designed for nothing but manipulation and desperate attempts to make mini campaign speeches are an anathema to the dialogic and deliberative process.
- The Commission on Presidential Debates should first direct its attention away from what it believes to be its role in structuring debate formats and concentrate more on the constitutional right to receive information. This means structure the questions and the format of the debate so that specific controversial issues (gun-control, healthcare, the war in Iraq, fighting ISIS, taxes) receive required attention and time. The current debate structure deprives listeners of this information.
- There must be meaningful opportunities for response. As of now, no bad argument goes unpunished. There should be fact checkers working during the actual debate and candidates would be required to respond to discrepancies at a selected period of time at the end of the debate. These fact checkers could also provide additional context for misleading and manipulative quotes taken out of context.
- The opportunity to correct mistakes and challenge misleading comments is not trivial because unchallenged and uncorrected comments find a life of their own circulating in media discussion and among citizens. Lies, exaggerations, and out of context information becomes reified and assumes a truth value.
- A common strategy for aggressive campaign operatives is to make a false statement or accusation, uphold it for a couple of new cycles, and then disappear. Even if the statement is later shown to be a complete falsehood the damage has already been done to the opposing candidate. This “name-calling” tactic degrades the process and increases the magnitude of falsehoods circulating in the discourse.
I will have more to say on debates and their deliberative structure in future posts. But it would behoove us to keep in mind that citizens prefer to receive information from like-minded others. This causes distorted processing and polarization of the type we see today. It’s imperative that political candidates be exposed to a diversity of opinions in order to improve their own.