By: Avraham Eisenberg  | 

Get Rid of Political Debates

The CNBC Republican presidential debate on October 28 sparked some soul-­searching among the campaigns. They felt collectively embarrassed, and sought to prevent another shaming from reoccurring. Whether their woes were a result of their bad policies or the moderators’ biases is a function of your political beliefs. Compare, for instance, NPR’s roundup of pundits’ reactions entitled “5 Headlines: Media Consensus Is That CNBC Was GOP Debate's 'Biggest Loser'” with Ezra Klein’s take that “the problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that's because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.” Several of the campaigns formed an alliance to influence future debates, issuing a list of demands to the networks. If control over everything from candidates’ displayed biographies to the temperature in the room was not ceded, they would not participate.

Despite minor complaints like these, both parties generally benefit from debates, at the expense of the public. Although every party has some undefendable positions,the establishment much prefers a platform from which the public chooses between candidates based on eloquence or attractiveness over one where politicians might be penalized for incorrect or misleading statements. This model also prevents non-mainstream candidates from even reaching the public eye. As George Farah, director of Open Debates, notes: “... the debates' rules of order have been hijacked by the two main political parties. The result? Moderators can't ask follow­up questions, important issues are never raised, and credible third­-party candidates are excluded from the proceedings altogether.”

Fine-­tuning debates, as the Republican establishment now wants, can only go so far. Ensuring the moderators are friendly (and the temperature adequate) does nothing to address the fundamental problems with the structure of debates. They systematically degrade the quality of the political discourse in a number of ways: incentivising glib talking at the expense of accuracy, highlighting “gotcha” moments instead of ideas, and allowing candidates to get away with tactics that would never work outside of a debate setting. The “winner” of a debate is often the person who spoke best, as opposed to the person with the best ideas, or even the best defense of their ideas. Arguments need not be consistent, correct, or on ­topic, as long as they are presented convincingly.
The debates often matter significantly more than other political events, because they get mass exposure. Seemingly trivial mistakes, like Rick Perry’s infamous “Oops” moment, can and do ruin candidacies, even though they arguably matter little to expected Presidential performance. Those kinds of mistakes happen because debates are aired live; in general, edited media is of higher quality. People make mistakes that they can’t undo when their remarks air unedited, and fact­-checking is a lot easier to get right when you have more time to research, instead of needing to formulate your answer within a handful of seconds. And why care about facts, when the overwhelming majority of your audience will never look up the truth? Fact­checkers like and PolitiFact get nowhere near the reach that the debates get, limiting their impact. This shows: pretty much every major candidate has at least one “Pants-on-fire” rating from Politifact, and/or several “Falses”; clearly there’s little incentive not to lie.

Instead of debates, why not have every candidate write a series of articles explicating their position on key issues, the process they use to come up with positions, and arguments against their opponents' previous articles? If this was the primary way their views were
disseminated to the public, they would presumably get high readership; perhaps not as much as the debates, but close. Then, getting the facts wrong would be met by a devastating rebuttal in their opponent's next articles, instead of on little­-read blogs and fact-­checkers. Candidates would have more time to compose and edit their arguments, and so mistakes made due to pressure would disappear. If they want to appeal to the public, they’ll need to be clear, and so misleading and illogical arguments would be easier to notice. And, of course, we won’t have all this drama whenever a moderator asks the wrong questions.

In short, I am advocating that politics adopt the model employed so successfully by academia. We do not decide scientific disputes by getting people in a room to compete for the best performance. Why should that decide who the most powerful person in the country will be?