"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Get Rid Of Presidential Debates

Gary Gutting has written in the New York Times (2.20.12) about the uselessness of presidential debates.  The candidates have full license to ignore any question, flap on about whatever issue suits them, and never get to engage their opponent.  When they do, it is usually just a little flare-up, planned and scripted like a pro hockey fight, staged more to show feistiness and macho creds than to attack wooly logic or exploit cracks in a weak argument.  Moderators are paid dupes, damned if they sit back and let the candidates bang on, and damned if they try to stop the dog fight.  In any case, it is not pretty.  Most of us turn off the TV wishing we had watched American Idol and vowing not to watch the next encounter.

Sure, there are surprises, like Obama turning up to play roll over doggy and letting Mitt look presidential, but that only meant that we were in fact watching American Idol, a Hollywood melodrama with two silly contestants, one a little tired-looking.

Only one debate in recent memory – the Vice-Presidential one between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had any substance at all.  These two guys clearly liked each other, showed a basic decency and civility, argued intelligently and agreed to disagree rather than bitch and spat.  It, however, was anomaly in a long line of nonsense, posturing, and glares. Everything about the debates is staged, practiced, and mind-numbingly familiar.  Both candidates have been thoroughly briefed on their positions, good salvos and ripostes, smarmy one-liners, and endless facts and figures. “Sound and look presidential”, the candidates are told. “No one will remember anything you say, and no one reads the fine print Truth and Reconciliation column in the Washington Post”.

Press conferences are the worst because the President and especially his Press Secretary can take a question, choose not to answer it, then move to the next question.  There is no follow up by any other journalist because each one of them has their own question, prepared and crafted long in advance.  In other words, there is no pursuit to pin the speaker down, no journalistic pack of dogs trying to tree a scurrying President.  Each journalist believes that they have the ultimate gotcha question and, Goddamn it, they are going to level it at the President come hell or high water.

Now, before making any suggestions, let’s have a look at what happens across the Atlantic, especially Prime Minister’s Question Hour where the PM takes on all comers from the ranks of his political rivals.  And come they do, each excoriating the Prime Minister for his retrograde policies, his lack of insight and thoroughness, his bumbling, and incompetence.  Each harangue is eloquent, extemporaneous, dripping with sarcasm and biting humor, pointed, and barbed.

The Prime Minister, who sits quietly in the pit of the amphitheatre  while his opponent bangs on – no notes or advisors whispering in his ear – patiently waits for The Right Honorable Gentleman to finish his screed, and then lets him have it with the same rhetorical flourishes, pointed sarcasm, confidence, and mastery of facts as his opponent.  “If The Right Honorable Gentleman had consulted his own words, ably stated in his speech before this very body last July, he would have realized the error of his ways”, or some such thing, pinning the old boy down, pillorying him before a crowd, deftly escaping the arrows fired at him, and volleying back with even more accuracy and verve.

There is an excellent program on the BBC World Service called Hard Talk on which the host interviews one guest for a half hour with no breaks.  The format, as the title implies, is hard, insistent questioning.  The interviewer will persist, interrupt, and demand until the guest answers the question, admits he does not have a good answer, or shames himself by dithering.  In all cases the guests have been chosen for their oratorical skills, their intelligence, and their intellectual deftness.  The interviewer wants an able, worthy opponent, and most are up to the challenge.  I have heard ministers, senior government officials, heads of large corporations, and directors of well-known non-profit foundations, all of whom have willingly subjected themselves to the interviewer’s uncompromising queries.  All guests are up to the standards of the MPs during Prime Minister’s Question Hour.

It is not a coincidence that both the Parliamentary debates and the interviews on Hard Talk are of the same high quality and intelligence and filled with the same rhetorical flourish.  The British – or at least those who have been well-educated – have been schooled in a classical education.  Cato the Elder who wrote the curricula for young Roman aristocrats who were ultimately to run and rule the Empire, insisted on rhetoric and public speaking; for he understood not only the power of words, but that clear speaking meant clear thinking.

Roman education for the upper classes in Cato’s time was expected to include a broad range of skills and general knowledge. Cato considered the five following branches of education as fundamental: oratory, agriculture, law, war, and medicine. Several generations later considered oratory the fundamental branch of education, as composed of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric known as the trivium…. In a manual on the art of speaking that he wrote for his son, he based his instruction on meticulous observation of the style of the Greek orators Demosthenes and Thucydides (kashalinka.com)

The Oxford Union Thursday debates have been a fixture of upper class British society for almost 200 years, and many members of Parliament have stood on the podium at the Union:

The Society's formal Thursday evening debates, which have been taking place since 1823 and remain the jewel in the crown of the Oxford Union, were founded on an ideal of the Freedom of Speech, when religion and politics were off-limits within the University. Harold Macmillan called us "the last bastion of free speech in the Western world".

The forms of debate are similar to that in the House of Commons, with all remarks addressed to the President or Chairman, and Members referred to as "honourable", standing on each side of the house to oppose each other. (Oxford Union).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the quality of debate in the United Kingdom is so high, especially when contrasted with those in the United States.  Not only do Americans do poorly in debates and one-on-one interviews (Larry King notwithstanding), they flee from them.

America is a notoriously anti-intellectual society.  If any president uses “hifalutin words”, he is branded as elitist.  George W. Bush, with strong New England roots; a solid Ivy League pedigree, and from a patrician WASP family who summered in Maine, knew that talkin’ cowboy would get him more votes than talkin’ Harvard. Politicians deliberately avoid any hint of breeding or superior education.  Rather than admire those qualities in our politicians and understand them as essential for leading the country, we are suspicious of them.  We would rather have a beer with Obama and shoot the shit rather than engage him about Descartes or the Enlightenment.  The term ‘A Regular Guy’ is the highest praise we can bestow on a leader.

We come by this dumbed down ethos honestly. Unlike the Europeans with their courts, kings, and commoners, we Americans are all from the same roughhewn roots, and we strode into our Houses of Delegates with clods of horseshit on our boots, tobacco in our mouths, and some mighty juicy four-letter words on our tongues. 

We are also capitalists, down to the core.  Everything is for sale in America, including our politicians.  In this sophisticated age of marketing, big data, and TV savvy, the goal of debates is to sell the candidate, not to show off his brilliance.  Debates are all about image, not substance.  Sound bites, not eloquence.  The difference between us and the British is like night and day.

It’s not that we can’t do it.  Exchanges between Supreme Court justices (except Clarence Thomas) and lawyers are little different from Hard Talk.  Justices badger, pursue, intimidate, and attack in a verbal joust with opponents whom they assume will riposte and retort in the same matter – more respectfully to be sure, but in kind.  The best debates in the United States are in the august hall of the Supreme Court.  Our politicians simply don’t want to do it.  They prefer to be insulated within the cocoon of media image and the predictability of fundamental, hot-button issues.  It take two to tango, and the American electorate is quite happy to be thrown the red meat of abortion, guns, marriage, liberty, and military strength and demand little else.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

Although Gutting recognizes that we all have “fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument”, he vastly underestimates them.  Millions of people believe that Obama was not born in the United States and millions more think he is a radical Black Panther Socialist. Over forty percent of Americans reject evolution and that figure is much higher in religiously conservative states of the Deep South.  Nearly forty percent of Americans categorize themselves as ‘born again’ and hold the fundamental belief that the Bible is the word of God.  With these numbers rationality has a very limited role indeed.

Gutting optimistically continues: 

So why not give reason a chance? How about a televised debate in the next few weeks on some key differences in the Democratic and Republican budget proposals? Here’s a concrete suggestion: Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Charles Schumer debating the question: Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?

OK in principle, but the camps of both Ryan and Schumer would argue endlessly about the rules of engagement, protocol, and format; and both would fight to protect their candidate rather than give him a freewheeling hand to debate.  In other words, the Ryan-Schumer Debate would be no different from any other.

How about the one-on-one Hard Talk interview, where President Obama sits down with the American likes of host Stephen Sakur and gets pestered and pursued until the answers difficult questions?  Never.  The most we could ever expect is a sit down with Oprah, Larry King, or David Letterman.  No one demands a hard, challenging interview, so politicians are not apt to seek it out.  In fact, it is likely that after a Hard Talk-type interview, many Americans would feel that the President had not been treated respectfully or given the deference required by his office.

Presidential debates to little or nothing to add substance to an electoral campaign.  Positions have been staked out and presented ad nauseam. The candidates have been seen in person, in ads, in softball TV appearances, and all over the Internet; and when they get on stage facing each other, they act predictably, defensively, protectively, and boringly.  We, the press, and the candidates are all complicit in this charade.  Since there is no point to them, they should be discontinued.

As far as press conferences go, they have been a waste of time since John F. Kennedy who, brought up in the British school, had confidence, oratorical skills, and a willingness to duke it out with his adversaries.  As a result, his press conferences were fun to watch and every so often you learned something.  Now they are as much of a charade as debates.  Nothing surprising or substantive is said, evasive action is the stratagem of the day, and they should go.

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