The Institution of Debate is Broken. Can We Do Better?


Jimmy Carter debates Gerald Ford in 1976

What do you remember best from the recent presidential debates? Cast your mind back, if you can stomach it. Perhaps you put Trump’s torrent of interruptions down to his irrepressible charisma, his shark-like nose for blood; perhaps Biden’s exasperated “Will you shut up man?” gave voice to something you’ve been feeling for some time. Or perhaps your memories are less rosy: instinctive disgust at Kamala Harris’s glib smile, a snigger of glee at the fly nesting in Mike Pence’s hair.


Whatever you thought of the debates, chances are they did not change your mind. Indeed, voters on both sides only seemed to agree on one thing: that the hour and a half of chaotic interruptions and evasions was not a crucible for the participants to refine and strengthen their opinions, but a great and unalloyed national embarrassment. A quick scroll through the Trump-Biden debate’s thousands of YouTube comments only confirms this: global opinion ranges from amused eye-rolling to downright schadenfreude. Pantomime, kabuki, farce, show-trial, the analogies all point to a single question: Is the art of public debate dead?


On the quantitative axis, the answer must be no. In terms of its prevalence and visibility, debating seems to be entering a golden age. Not only are political debates attracting more and more viewers, but, thanks to YouTube, a whole cottage industry of quasi-academic public debates has sprung up. A few debates – Chomsky-Foucault, Hitchens-Galloway, Žižek-Peterson – have reached near-canonical status, and slick organisations (like the appallingly named “Intelligence Squared”) reap the profits. And like all the great orators and rhetoricians, the doyens of public debate have spawned imitators. We’re all debaters now: our online presences, which reward the resonant put-down, the scathing epigram, the droll riposte, lead us to court adversarial situations with an energy and determination seldom seen, even on the glitziest of political stages.

Tony Blair debates Christopher Hitchens on religion in a Munk Debate in 2010 (Picture Credit: Tom Purves)

But vociferousness is not the same as efficacy. Are debates, we should ask ourselves, still doing their job? What is it, exactly, that debates are supposed to achieve? Here we reach for a strand of liberal opinion that used to be regarded as common sense, but now seems increasingly contentious. Public debates are rooted in the belief that, from the clash of two antagonistic opinions, truth will emerge, and the audience, if not the partisans themselves, will be enlightened. The idea has its roots in Athenian democracy – with great politicians and orators like Pericles and Aristides – but only became a part of mainstream institutional life during the Enlightenment. Public debate was thought so important in Western societies that by the 19th century some theorists of liberalism suggested that without secure spaces for free public debate, truth could not exist at all. The most eloquent of these was John Stuart Mill, for whom truth, without the institution of debate, was merely “dead dogma.”


One of the great strengths of debate is supposed to be its format: with its moderators, regulated speech lengths, and circumscribed rebuttal segments, both sides are always heard. In theory, this should prevent the truth being the sole preserve of he who shouts loudest. The Athenians understood this well, distinguishing between the pnyx – a formal, amphitheatrical, controlled setting where political debates took place – and the agora, or marketplace – an intellectual free-for-all where anyone could butt in at any moment. It was no surprise, then, that the great Athenian orators tended to favour the pnyx, where they were allowed time and space to elaborate their points.


But the dream of the pnyx is dying. Debates are no longer consumed just once: they lead a strange half-life, thanks to social and mass media, through clips, memes, and selective news reporting by partisan organisations. Only a fraction of the consumption of today’s TV debates is actually long-form; following Pence’s debate with Harris, few on Twitter could get past the fly. The American academic James Dimock has charted the dwindling length of political debates in the US since 1948. The first ever broadcasted debate – a face-off between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen ahead of the 1948 Republican primary – was organised around a single topic, and yet lasted a whole hour, with each candidate allotted 20 minutes for his opening statement. By 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s opening statements had shrunk to eight minutes apiece with two and a half minutes per question; by 2004, George Bush and John Kerry only received two per question.


Where once the debate was a means of elaborating on points, it is now an exercise in compression. And in tandem with the pruning of debates by organisers, there is a growing canniness among politicians about the ways in which debates are consumed. Questions are designed to elicit inflammatory comments that might rouse indignation on Twitter; speeches are little more than strings of aphorisms, pre-prepared with YouTube in mind.

Speeches are now little more than strings of aphorisms, pre-prepared with YouTube in mind.

Compression breeds cliché. It’s simply easier for a debater to invoke what the audience thinks it already knows than to expound ideas with the potential to shock or surprise. Audiences are constantly comparing pronouncements with conventional wisdom, rather than thinking critically. One can’t help but think of Noam Chomsky – not quite above an aphorism himself – and his remark that “concision means you have to be able to say things between two commercials.” In the context of mass media, this “imposes conformism in a very deep way because if you have to meet the condition of concision, you can only either repeat conventional platitudes or else you sound like you are from Neptune.”


What this amounts to is an abandonment of the truth altogether. This is the new demand placed on political language: not that it be true, but that it might, in the heat of the moment, seem to be. Both debaters and the public are becoming wise to the change, and neither group appears to mind. Accordingly, after the last presidential debate, we were treated not to discussions of how Trump and Biden came across on the night, but to a strange, new mode of gonzo speculation. Pundits now style themselves not as cloistered experts on the issues under discussion, but as sympathetic everymen, attuned to how each moment will “play” on social media. And as for the debaters themselves, they are growing wilfully unscrupulous with their insinuations. In a 2017 presidential debate in France, the far-right FN candidate Marine Le Pen teased Emmanuel Macron with the barb, cleverly phrased so as to avoid a libel suit, “I hope that we don’t learn that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas.” There is no evidence Macron ever had such an account, but that scarcely mattered; the germ of suspicion had been planted. And Macron could hardly protest – there was simply no time.


Even the law, often seen as an island of neutrality in this increasingly partisan sea, is not immune. Compared with the drier, more bureaucratic inquisitorial trials common in countries like France and Italy, common law countries now reward florid and ostentatious advocacy from both sides. Entertainment rules, and the US, to take the most extreme example, has a whole pantheon of legal “celebrities” to show for it: Clarence Darrow, Alan Dershowitz, Johnnie Cochran. Because prosecutors have a bored, often resentful gallery of jurors to convince, they overplay the wickedness of defendants, and often pursue far more stringent sentences than are appropriate. What’s more, plea bargains and difference-splitting are anticipated, and as a result, prosecutors are encouraged to make their case as extreme as possible. Defence lawyers are little better: tall extenuating stories are concocted by brilliant advocates all the time, with a promiscuous disregard for the truth. Just like in politics, then, the adversarial system makes advocates sink to the level of their audience. And just like presidential debates, large US criminal trials now spill over into mass entertainment. Even cases as critical as the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearing descended into the same old gonzo style, with hours of coverage on CNN and MSNBC, less on the veracity of any claims made than on how the Kavanaugh and his accuser “came across.”

It is nothing new to claim that this performative dimension, this preference for catchpenny point-scoring by means of easily assimilable clichés and shareable soundbites, is no longer limited to politics and the law. On social media, as we all know, there is immense social capital to be gained from “owning” or otherwise eviscerating political opponents and faceless trolls alike. It’s simply more effective to signal one’s moral sophistication with a cutting aphorism or put-down than it is to expound a long, rather dry point. We’re all politicians and lawyers now.


But what is new, perhaps, is the way we seem to believe what we’re selling. There is self-assurance in the soundbite, a confidence in cliché, that manages to convince not just the unsuspecting audience who hears it, but the casuist who uses it. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was perhaps the first to notice this strange slippage, where a factoid or turn of phrase that seems like it might resonate with the debater’s audience becomes, even for the debater himself, synonymous with the truth. In his essay “The Present Age,” Kierkegaard lamented the dilettantism of the modern mind: “The Age of Encyclopaedists is gone,” he wrote, superseded by performers and professional quibblers. “Now we have an age of intellectual tourists…who, here and there, deal with all sciences and all existence.”


I recently witnessed this in action in a conversation about Karl Marx between two teenagers. Eventually, the more exasperated of the two declaimed (quite reasonably): “No wonder people like you are so afraid of Marx’s ideas, it’s not like you’ve actually read him.”


“Have you?” the other asked.


And with all the smoothness of an Athenian sophist, all the conviction of a Soviet apparatchik, his interlocutor replied: “No, but I know the bits I need to know to prove you wrong. And if I did read it, it’d prove me right.”


Most of what we do these days, we do to make an impression. Some of us – the more adaptable ones, perhaps, those at the evolutionary vanguard – have managed to collapse the form and content of life in the way that the age demands: such people can, for example, take glossy pictures of their lives and convince themselves that it’s the real thing. And in the same way, many of us have come to view the ability to deliver sound bites, even if those sound bites don’t really make sense in context, as real knowledge and expertise. In the present age, as Kierkegaard well knew, we are both debater and audience; with our own sophistry, we have managed to deceive ourselves.

Many of us have come to view the ability to deliver sound bites, even if those sound bites don’t really make sense in context, as real knowledge and expertise.

What, if anything, can be done? At the legal and institutional level, there are some reforms which might help. Many common law countries have already introduced inquisitorial trials for cases involving highly technical white-collar crime. Other states, like the UK, have tried to mitigate the poisonous media half-life of criminal trials by banning cameras in courthouses and placing gag orders on active cases. But at the level of politics, a top-down approach doesn’t seem promising. We can scarcely hope for politicians to remain scrupulous and careful in their insinuations when media coverage rewards anything but; and in any case, democratic politics requires an uncensored interface between politicians and the public.


We can’t expect politicians to stop being entertainers. But maybe we can hope that we, their audiences, will stop being entertained. What’s really required to break the cycle of misinformation, especially at its most lurid and pantomimic, is restraint. It’s all very well to urge sobriety and moderation from the other side of the aisle, tutting at Trump’s interruptions the other evening, for example, but the moment we like a video of a sardonic put-down or share a meme that panders to our own prejudices, we have done much the same thing. We have perpetuated the very half-life, the false economy of put-downs and half-truths, that is killing politics.


Refusing to participate in politics isn’t an option, not in these strange times, but choosing to imbibe in a more sober, restrained way is. So take regular breaks from social media, particularly its more politicised corners. And no more John Stewart or John Oliver, while you’re at it; no more chuckling at Stephen Colbert. Learn the value of struggle, of boredom, of deep study: Marx, Mill, Middlemarch. Learn to think before reacting, to research something before making up your mind on it. If you must watch the debates, watch them in full. And, with all the will you can muster, refuse to be entertained.

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019
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