Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

So Called “Debates”

In true debates, the press simply listens like the rest of us. In an authentic debate there may be moderators, but not questioners.

The political season always brings out a cycle of “debates” finally agreed to by cautious candidates and news organizations. Though everyone involved has different motives, the one most commonly expressed is that these events offer the public the chance to compare candidates side by side. In the unfettered give-and-take of a debate we are supposed to learn about issues that divide or maybe even unify those running for the same office.

Even so, most of these joint appearances fall short in testing persons and ideas. As usually formatted, they can’t achieve these lofty goals, for two reasons.  First, the response times for individuals are always too short, often a minute or less. Bernie Sanders is right to call them “demeaning.” And second, for no valid reason the press wants in on the action as well.  The quid pro quo is free airtime, if they can be part of the show.

Ideally, debates should deliver what philosophers call “dialectic:” a purposeful clash of views where claims and evidence are tested against a series of counter-arguments. Among others, Aristotle was certain that acts of public advocacy had a cleansing effect on the body politic. He believed we are wiser for subjecting our ideas to the scrutiny of others. This may sound lofty and abstract, but most of us do a form of this when we talk through a pending and important decision. We often want friends to help us see potential problems in a planned course of action.

In open societies such as ours we expect to hear contrasting opinions. It’s a wonderful process when it’ well-formatted. Otherwise—and as devised by most political operatives—a political debate is usually is little more than a joint press conference.

The candidates share part of the blame. They usually fear these exchanges. They and their staffs believe that a serious gaff can sink an entire campaign. So they hedge their bets. They agree to “debates” if they are moderated by a panel or at least a single journalist. The logic of journalism is to ask new questions at frequent intervals. This is when the process begins to go south. It’s further doomed when each side is given only a minute or so to respond. These errors are then compounded with a final counter-response that is barely the length of a sneeze. As it now exists, it’s little more than a lukewarm form of political theater.

A good debate will have no more than a moderator or time-keeper to equalize participation and keep things civil. The advocates directly address the claims and arguments of their opposites on what is usually a single broad but important subject area. Their opening remarks must be permitted to be longer than a television commercial. They then listen, refute, question, and challenge each other. When one issue seems to have been exhausted, the moderator may steer the pair to a related issue and then get out of the way.

Lincoln and Douglas debated for hours by themselves without the assistance of others. Indeed, a prime form of Saturday night entertainment in the nineteenth century was a formal debate in a town’s biggest venue. The whole process of seeing two leaders explain their ideas under the scrutiny of an interested audience could be invigorating. By contrast, the short question-based formats commonly in American political debates generally ruin the chance to see how much a candidate truly knows, beyond the memorized sound bites that they repeat at every stop. Just when follow-up rebuttals might begin to test a candidate’s knowledge of an issue, the questioners usually interrupt and move on to a new topic.

Several years ago Americans could catch a series of debates in the United Kingdom between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond on Scotland’s referendum to go it alone as an independent nation.  Scotland ultimately voted to stay: an outcome that might not hold these days, given their current displeasure with London’s intention to leave the E.U.

The original debates weren’t perfect by any means. But these televised clashes had the advantage of allowing both sides sufficient time to make essential arguments and extended refutations. As can be seen with the never-ending Brexit debate, the British expect that members of the government and individual M.P.s will be able to stand up under sometimes challenging counter-arguments from their ideological opponents.

Debates should extend beyond glib assertions of support or opposition.  In the United States we rarely let candidates go on long enough to discover if they have confronted the full consequences of their positions.

Shredded Constitutions

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and customary rules.

If we wanted a convenient way to understand the fragility of some of the West’s most storied democracies, we could do no better to look at the nation that was the former leader of the Western world and the nation known as having the Mother of Parliaments.  Both the United States and Britain are in the midst of constitutional crises that can only please non-democratic states that have never attempted to invest sovereignty in their citizens.  Boris Johnson has tried to do end-runs around the House of Commons to avoid its judgment that Brexit should be delayed.  For his efforts he received a rare rebuke from the nation’s Supreme Court.  And his battle with factions in the Commons is only part of the problem. They have withheld a vote of no-confidence because it would trigger an election they fear could give him a free hand to impose a no-deal Brexit. They have cause because it would violate their rightful parliamentary sovereignty.

At this point Johnson has no majority and seemingly not much of a clear path forward, unless he can work out a compromise with the EU.  The traditional opposition, the Labour Party, has decimated itself with a leader many its members to not want. Jeremy Corbyn mostly dithered through the last years of Prime Minister May’s government, giving ordinary citizens fears that a Corbyn government could be worse. Even on Brexit he still manages to stand precariously on the fence. The British system assumes leaders will be supported by their own parties, and ready to take over when the current government has made a mess of things.  That’s not how it’s working now.

The situation is as bad if not worse on this side of the Atlantic.  Like Johnson, Donald Trump’s regime routinely trashes traditions by refusing to submit regular appointments to congressional oversight, ignoring subpoenas, ignoring long-standing ethics rules, self-dealing in ways that promote his businesses, courting foreign powers to intervene in American elections, and overreaching to assert executive privilege.  The impeachment process will be an interesting test. Will staffers and agency professionals be intimidated?  Will subpoenas be honored?  Will executive privilege be used as a smokescreen?  The Constitution is of little help on these questions.

Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the current president cannot be turned out through impeachment.

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and rules and long-standing courtesies.  The framers of the Constitution gave Congress legislative powers, but no police powers or workable ways to punish those they find in contempt.  And so Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the Republican Senate will block efforts to turn Donald Trump out.  What’s remains of the old GOP can been reassured that they are mostly safe under constitutional provisions that guarantee a skewed process for electing senators (two per state, regardless of their size).  In a more representative system California would have something like 36 senators to Wyoming’s 2.

There is a presumption in both nations that their constitutions are bright models for emerging democracies. The common view is that their problems don’t rise to a level that would demand change, though many in Britain now wish they’d bothered to write their’s down.  But the the sorry state of politics in both countries  suggests a need for more constructive criticism of these foundational documents.  Our problems are not just because of our leaders. The bad news, I’m afraid, is that the challenges we face are much more structural than we want to admit.