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Steven Weiss: How to watch the presidential ‘debates’ — though they aren’t really true to the term


Here’s an experiment you can try. Go to YouTube and type the phrase “good debate.” You might be surprised to discover that almost none of the search results are from US presidential debates. In fact, more of them are about sports topics, and most are about questions like “does God exist?” The few presidential debates you may come across are parodies from SNL skits.

What explains this? The obvious answer: presidential debates are not “good debates.” That hypothesis is not borne out, however, upon trying another search–the plain word “debate.” You will find the results remarkably similar to the first search. So presidential debates aren’t excluded from the search results by any perceived lack of quality.

Here’s my conjecture to account for these strange search results: presidential debates are hardly debates at all. They never have been. And while that sounds like a far-fetched and unprovable hypothesis, Google’s search algorithms are apparently smart enough to have figured this out.

Now how can we possibly say that presidential debates are not debates? That seems to be a paradox, or perhaps even self-contradictory. As someone who has taught argument and debate my whole adult life, and who has watched every debate since Nixon-Kennedy in 1960, I think I can say with confidence that these are not debates. I believe scores of colleagues in my field would concur.

So, what is a debate? A debate is a structured form of advocacy in which one of the advocates attempts to abjure the policies of the other, and where his/her opponent attempts to defend those policies.

While things evinced in presidential debates as we’ve known them somewhat fit this definition, it is largely not the case that debate watchers will see the proceedings play out in adherence to this template. Rather they will see what is tantamount to a political food fight, in which (the next morning’s highlights will reveal) zingers, gaffes, personal attacks, diversion, misrepresentation, and bravado predominate. Rarely will those same debate viewers see examples of thoughtful, reasonable, evidenced, organized, and clear advocacy. They are clearly not seeing or reacting to a debate.

The biggest flaw in presidential debates–and the thing that makes them unlikely to actually be seen as debates–is the awful format. Let’s compare the format used with a debate-centered format.

Current format. Reporter: President Trump, by coin toss, you have the first question. Over 200,000 Americans have died in the pandemic. Sir, please defend your response to this crisis.

Better format: Reporter: Vice-President Biden, present your case against the Trump administration.

In the current format, the person on defense has to speak first. The reporter has entered the debate (not the other advocate, as it should be). It’s already not a debate. It’s a dueling press conference very much up to the whims of the journalist who is presiding.

In the better format, the journalist fades into the background. He/she is there as a timekeeper, referee, moderator–to ensure that is a debate. And the challenger will always speak first. He has the burden of proof after all.

I’m aware that my preferred format will probably never be adopted. But—nonetheless — I have trained myself to watch and analyze presidential debates as if they were in fact debates, and I would like to encourage you to do so as well. Here are some questions you may want to ask as you watch or debrief the debates.

For the challenger

1. Is Biden’s analysis of the alleged failings of the Trump administrations credible?
2. Has he reasonably and rationally laid out his case against Trump?
3. Can he back up what he’s saying — with evidence grounded in data and reality?
4. Is he organized/coherent in laying out his arguments?
5. Can he adequately respond to how Trump defends himself?
6. Does he sound clear and convincing in his presentation?

For the Incumbent

1. Is Biden wrong about the claimed failings of the Trump administration?
2. Can Trump lay out a reasonable and rational defense of his presidency?
3. What evidence of his own does Trump have to counteract what Biden is saying?
4. Is Trump organized/coherent in laying out his arguments?
5. Can he adequately respond to how Biden has attacked him?
6. Does he sound clear and convincing in his presentation?

This is a matched set of questions. Using a must system (like in boxing), each debater would get 5 points for winning a question, while his opponent would get 4 for that same question. Adding up the scores would give you the “winner,” while also showing you how close the debate was. Also, given the even number of questions, the score could result in a tie. In that case, the debate would go to the incumbent, since the challenger has the burden of proof (and which is why he/she should always speak first).

It’s unlikely that presidential debates will ever become real debates. But for now, let’s at least pretend. It makes watching so much less painful.

Steven Weiss is Professor of Communication Studies at Northern Kentucky University. He is the author of — with Edmond Weiss — Making Arguments: Reason in Context. He’s currently teaching a course on the History of Presidential Debates. He can be reached at weiss@nku.edu


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