HEAT AND LIGHT
Shortly following the 2016 election, I was speaking on a college campus where I emphasized the role that debates play in both politics and education. Following the lecture, a student astutely inquired regarding the value of such debate, pointing to degradation of discourse we had just witnessed on the presidential debate stage. My response was simple, “Political debate is more akin to theatre than to debate.” Amid the political theatre of each election, then, how can we voters parse through the rhetoric and make these debates helpful as we weigh the candidates and our votes?
Don’t Judge Winners and Losers
Seconds after any political debate ends, pundits rush to pick winners and losers, while campaigns fire out pre-loaded emails declaring their candidate’s victory. Don’t fall for the trap.
Done properly, debates are a competition of ideas. They give voters an opportunity to compare candidate platforms side-by-side, while simultaneously forcing candidates to articulate and defend their ideas against criticism. They put both the candidates and their policies — both proposed and past records — under fire. The only winners in such an exchange are the voting public.
Evaluate debates by ideas raised and the character displayed. Leave the winning and losing for Election Day.
Substance over Style
Style dominates political debates. This was no more evident than in the first televised presidential debate — the 1960 showdown between the rising star from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and the sitting vice president, Richard M. Nixon. While those who tuned into the debate via radio largely believed Nixon bested Kennedy, those who watched the debate came away gravitating toward Kennedy. The contrast was sharp between a feverish Nixon sweating profusely and positioned awkwardly and a calm, cool, and suave Kennedy.
Herein lies the divide between substance and style. Campaigns sell image because the public buys it. It isn’t limited to how one dresses, but the totality of one’s appearance — consider how often we hear about how “presidential” a candidate appears — from dress to speaking styles all the way down to the slogans, one-liners, and zingers thrown back and forth.
Style wins points, but it doesn’t govern. At the end of the day, when the cameras go off and we put down our devices, we are electing a leader to govern. Governing takes place at the intersection of policy and process and our evaluation of debates should as well. What do slogans like “Hope We Can Believe In” and “Make American Great Again” tell us about a candidate’s platform? While one-liners and zingers make for great soundbites, what ideas do they advance? Rather, ask the hard questions and replace these slogans and zingers with questions of what, how, and why.
Criticism is Easy, Solutions are Hard
In politics, as in life, it is always easier to criticize the status quo than offer workable solutions toward improving it. It is human nature to place blame for the problems we see; we do this in all aspects from relationships to spectator sports. It is no different in politics. Candidates are quick to capitalize on our human nature and dig deep into the opponents’ professional careers and personal lives to find any contradiction, mistake, or failed venture or vote to parade before voters.
Criticizing, however, is not governing. Developing solutions is difficult work. It demands both ideology and pragmatism, the former providing direction with the latter ensuring functionality. Once developed, proposing solutions is risky work. While catchphrases and one-liners offer nothing substantive to criticize, introducing detailed ideas and solutions provides opportunity for evaluation and criticism.
Listen for solutions. Any speechwriter can whip up a clever one-liner and any candidate can make general promises of being pro this or anti that. True leaders asking to govern our nation, state, or community, however, should be able to articulate well-developed ideas of their own and demonstrate how they work. Those who refuse to propose tangible solutions should remain on the sidelines as commentators.
If you find yourself agreeing with everything one candidate is saying, you either aren’t listening or you’ve drunk the campaign Kool-Aid. Each of us carries our own biases — from core identities such as religion to inconsequential preferences such as sports allegiances — and even our strongest personal relationships are rife with disagreements. Why would our politics be any different?
Campaigns are keen to capitalize on these biases and — while a candidate can’t stop through a favorite local diner while sporting the local high school’s colors in the middle of a debate — each candidate walks onto that debate stage with a specific target audience in mind, while their campaign is micro-targeting that audience through their personal devices throughout the evening. Candidates know to speak to our preferences, so we must be equally aware of how our preferences lead us.
I remind my students ad nauseum to “think with your head and feel with your heart.” It is not a call to abandon emotion, but to distinguish between reason and emotion and to know when to embrace each. Biases are not inherently negative; they merely reflect who we are. Not to acknowledge one’s biases, then, would be not to know oneself and that, to borrow from Socrates, would be a life not worth living, let alone a ballot worth casting.
Too often our debates shed heat, but not light. Candidates are trained to fan the flames, placing the burden on us as voters to rise above the drama of political theater and to see clearly and think coherently. Along the way, we may learn a thing or two about ourselves and how we engage in our own political debates.
As James Madison articulated in Federalist 39, the power of the republic rests in that its leaders are chosen by its people. It is a responsibility we must take seriously. After all, as Benjamin Franklin famously emphasized upon leaving the Constitutional Convention: we have a Republic, but only if we can keep it.
SAMUEL CHEN is an award-winning political scientist, analyst, and strategist. He is the founder and principal director of The Liddell Group and serves as Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northampton Community College (PA). He additionally serves as host and anchor of the news journal talk show “Face the Issues”. You can follow him on all social media at @SamChen220.