I really should just quit writing social commentary, and refer people to Stephen L Carter if they want to my views on the zeitgeist

Stephen L Carter is a professor of law at Yale, and an occasional columnist for Bloomberg.  He writes clearly and succinctly and sometimes, moderately humorously and ironically.  His latest column, You have my permission to ignore the debates, did such a fine job (much better than my sarcastic preview) of explaining why not to watch the debates that it made me pine for better writing chops so I might have explained things so eloquently. 

His basic premise was that the debates are contrived competitions, like the X factor or American Idol or something, that have very little electoral impact; and that they shouldn’t be considered a competition, but simply be a forum for sizing up each candidate’s views.  And that there is no way, in the two minutes allotted for responding to questions, that any substantive views could be expressed, which all seems about right.  Go read his column.  It’s worth the time.

Here’s a few of the problems I see with using a debate to ascertain fitness to govern:

1) A debate should be a clash of ideas, not people.  But a presidential campaign is a clash of people, not ideas.  Politicians don’t have ideas, they have ideologies, usually those they’ve cynically adopted as expedient to their ambitions.   Ideologies are belief systems, not much amenable to debate.  It does no more good for competing political ideologies to debate than it would to stage a religious debate between an imam, a rabbi and a priest.  Beliefs are not the proper subject of debate, as they arise from a place separate from reason, which is part of why political debates never change anyone’s mind.

2) Debating and rhetorical skills are about as important to performing the job of president as, say, the ability to play chess, or to teach a horse how to dance.  Instead of debates over ideologies (which are always necessarily very close to the same in a two-party system), why not make it a presidential decathlon?  Have them play a game of twenty-one in basketball, then an actual chess match, then a round of par-3 golf, then a fish-off, then maybe even a javelin throw, then some dressage or whatever the “sport” of horse dancing is known as (let each candidate pick two events), and so on.  The presidential decathlon would not be much good in ascertaining who is most fit to govern, but would be one huge circus to keep the masses gleefully entertained and the media to whom they cater enriched, and isn’t that really the whole point of staging debates? 

3)  There is no way in the debating format where anything truthful might gurgle its way past the surface tension.  Think for a moment about this notion that truth might be revealed through the dialectic that is a political debate.  (It recalls the method with which the nineteenth century German philosopher, Hegel, surmised the whole universe was organized, but Hegel counted on the antagonists being concerned with discovering truth, and not in a zero-sum battle to the political death.)  Each party in a political debate is lying, much like the opposing lawyers in a courtroom.  But in a political debate, there are no eyewitnesses to the truth.  There are no disinterested observers who can smite the antagonists for their more egregious lies (the moderator is hardly as powerful as a judge in a courtroom).  There is just point-counterpoint.  If one candidate were to claim that grass is green, the other candidate would immediately point out how much greener it would be were he elected/re-elected president.   So far as an information gathering exercise on what policies the republic should follow, a presidential debate is worse than useless.

So now, you can ignore the debates with some high-minded rationalizations handy.  Throw in that bit about Hegel, and you’ll win any debate about whether or not the debates are worth watching.