Against Debate

By Mike Dorf

Regular readers of this blog will have picked up that Professor Buchanan does not find the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates enlightening -- to say the least.  (See posts here, here, here, and here).  I agree and am thus not looking forward to tonight's debate, except perhaps as a way to avoid watching Yankee after Yankee strike out against Justin Verlander.  (Speaking of expectations, you know you have reached some sort of low point when you are grateful that one of your prime sluggers merely strikes out rather than hitting into a double play.  But I digress.)

I share Professor Buchanan's dismay both about the substance of the debates and the way in which the "who won" question focuses on nonsense: Who sounded like he would appeal to swing voters?  Who looked more presidential?  Etc.  After the first debate, there were some efforts to fact-check the candidates, but these were predictably drowned out by the coverage of "who won."

The problem may go beyond any particular format.  At least since ancient Athens, astute thinkers have criticized rhetoric.  Plato's Socrates exposes the emptiness of rhetoric in Gorgiasjust as Aristophanes, some years earlier, had (somewhat unfairly) parodied Socrates himself as a sophist in The Clouds. To oversimplify a bit, both Plato and Aristophanes called into question the power of fine speech to reveal the truth.  On the contrary, each suggested that rhetoric more likely obscures the truth.

Formal debates exacerbate the problem because they divert attention from the merits of the positions espoused by the debaters and bring the focus on their debating skills.  Some years ago, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote an essay titled In Praise of Moot Court - Not!   In that essay, Judge Kozinski decried the artificiality of law school student moot courts.  Having to choose a winner based on who did a better job, moot court judges must try to discount their views on the merits.  In this calculus, one can lose the argument and still win the moot court, if one outperforms what the judge expects given the judge's view of the merits.  Judge Kozinski's proposed solution was to have judges (mostly) vote their actual preference for the outcome.  It didn't catch on, perhaps because of logistical obstacles, but his critique captures a real deficiency in competitive debate.  By design, it measures who does the better debating, rather than who had the stronger argument.

One would expect something different in a Presidential (or Vice Presidential) debate.  After all, notwithstanding Judge Kozinski's critique, the point of a moot court or a collegiate debate is for the participants to hone their skills.  It is a competition and accordingly it is understandable that the rules are structured to judge the contestants based on their skills, independent of the merits of the particular case (or resolution, in a debate).  By contrast, in a debate between candidates, no one should really care who does a better job debating.  It is not as though the president is ever in a setting in which he must rely on his formal debating skills to persuade foreign leaders to side with the U.S. rather than the debater for the other side.

Indeed, the very idea of, say, a formal debate between the U.S. President and a foreign leader on some policy issue is far-fetched.  The closest we have come to anything of the sort was the "kitchen debate" between (then VP) Nixon and Kruschev.  It was a short, frank, extemporaneous discussion about the relative virtues of communism and capitalism.  Nixon and Kruschev disagreed but part of what made for compelling viewing was the very fact that it wasn't a debate.  Each leader was playing to the crowd and to tv viewers (in both the US and the USSR) but precisely because there was no formal debate structure, the tendency of the exchange was to invite viewers to ponder the actual questions: Can communism really compete with capitalism in the production of consumer goods?  If not, does that make capitalism the superior system?  The question of "who won" the kitchen debate is inextricable from the merits of communism and capitalism in a way that the question of whether Romney or Obama "wins" tonight will likely not be inseparable from the virtues of their likely respective policies.

Both Professor Buchanan and I had a fair bit of success as competitive debaters in our youth.  It was fun.  It was pretty good practice for law school and lawyering.  But it didn't resolve any of the issues about which we debated.  It wasn't even about those issues.  Tonight's "town hall" debate mostly won't be about the issues it purports to be about either.