A Short Guide to Watching Political Debates

Get out your rubber boots, because the mud is going to fly

Excuse me, that’s political “debates,” because very little genuine debate ever takes place at these events. It’s more of an opportunity for politicians to utter carefully rehearsed, focus-group-tested slogans. The things they say could usually fit on a bumper-sticker. Listen for emotive words and phrases designed to get the people going. Stuff like:

  • Real
  • Hope
  • Change
  • Get Ahead
  • Forward
  • Together
  • Hard-working families/folks/Americans/Canadians
  • Kitchen table
  • The middle-class (“and those working hard to join it”)
  • Wall Street/Bay Street vs Main Street
  • Men and women in uniform

What do words like “real,” “change,” and “forward” mean, precisely? Never mind what they mean. You couldn’t possibly understand. Now shut the fuck up and vote for us.

Prepare to be treated like a child. Your intelligence will be insulted.

Take It Seriously — But Not Too Seriously

Remember that you’re watching an advertisement, not a good-faith dialectic. The dumpster fires that burn between candidates on stage will always provide more heat than light. They are competing for attention, so they have incentive to provide snappy soundbites that will be picked up, replayed, and analyzed to death by the pundits afterward.

In the post-debate coverage, a spin-doctor from each party will be waiting eagerly in the wings to claim victory for his or her own team, no matter what. If their opponent made a gaffe, they’ll point to it as evidence of that person’s incompetence and untrustworthiness. If their own party’s leader slipped up, however, the shill will dismiss it as nothing, reasoning that people out there “care about the real issues.”

You’ll notice that political operatives, and the politicians they obediently serve, love putting words in other people’s mouths. They will take credit for every success. They will eschew talk of their own shortcomings. And they will always frame their opponent’s actions in the worst possible light. They are the ultimate armchair quarterbacks. Something like this:

Did the stock market crash on my opponent’s watch? Ha! That wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at the wheel.

Yeah, my opponent negotiated a new trade deal that will benefit the country. So what? I would’ve gotten us an even better deal.

A major company is cutting manufacturing jobs because of automation and market forces, you say? No, no. It’s because of my opponent’s failed policies.

They’re not interested in what’s true. They care only about influencing voters’ perceptions.

Rule #1: Control the narrative.

Given this sordid dynamic, it is extraordinarily rare to find a candidate courageous enough to admit to failure. (Incredibly, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and presidential candidate, provided an admirable exception to this trend during the first Democratic debate of 2019. See clip below.)

Civil Disengagement

But do you want to know what — or who — is most to blame for the sullied state of political debate? We, the apathetic public.

Okay, maybe not you, because you understand that voting in a democratic election is a fragile privilege that must not be taken for granted. (Right??) But Canada is lucky if 2 in 3 eligible voters cast a ballot. In the United States the figure is more like 55 percent voter turnout for presidential elections, and usually far lower for midterms. Mobilizing voters is so hard, in fact, that it becomes the primary strategy for winning an election. So how do you mobilize voters? You say inflammatory things to make them outraged, and use “wedge issues” to polarize people onto one side of the fence or the other.

The United States primary system is a perfect example. Pitting candidates of the same party against one another for their party’s nomination has the effect of limiting the range of debate that takes place. In this initial stage they are competing for votes from only one half of the political spectrum, so the most effective strategy is often to throw red meat to the hungry wolves —that is, to say whatever the voters want to hear. This is what analysts mean when they say a candidate is playing to his or her “base”.

The rhetoric in these primary “debates” becomes absurdly exaggerated as each candidate tries to out-virtue-signal the others. Nuance and moderation are tossed out the window, overtaken instead by strident demonizations of the opposing party and the threat it purportedly poses to the country. Trump is a fascist madman with his finger on the nuclear button! The Democrats want to confiscate your guns because they hate freedom! And they love killing babies! And they want America to surrender to our enemies! This is all ignoring, of course, that governing is much different — and much harder — than criticizing. Any witless schmuck can throw stones. But it works because most citizens only pay attention around election time, then tune out during the other three years in between. And even when election day rolls around, many of them don’t vote anyway.

Rule #2: Make people angry and frightened of your opponent so they come out to vote against him/her.

A similar dynamic exists in Canada, even though it has no formal primary system. Pre-election debates are essentially Question Period taken out of the House of Commons and plopped onto a stage with podiums. There are many questions asked, but few real answers given.

A Flawed Electoral System

Part of the problem lies with the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, in which the party that wins the most seats — rather than the most overall votes — gets to form the government. (For Americans, this is effectively the same as the Electoral College. Just as a candidate can lose the popular vote and still become president of the United States, political parties in Canada often win majority governments with less than 40% of the popular vote.) This makes elections noncompetitive in certain regions.

For example, Democratic presidential candidates understand that they won’t win the “red” states of Louisiana or Mississippi in a general election, so they don’t bother trying. Same with Republicans in “blue” states such as California or New York. There are pockets of support for each party in all those places, but not nearly enough to win the state overall. It’s a lost cause.

Moving north, the Liberal Party of Canada knows it’s very unpopular in the province of Alberta, where most voters shake their fists at the mere utterance of the name “Trudeau.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — the son of the man many Albertans came to despise decades ago — understands that even if he approved every pipeline under the sun, his party still won’t win more than two or three ridings there. Why alienate progressive, environmentalist voters in British Columbia and Quebec just to try to appease conservatives in Alberta who won’t vote for you anyway? He has nothing to gain. Better to focus efforts elsewhere, in a region where the Liberals can be competitive.

To make matters worse, gerrymandering is a rampant problem (mainly in the U.S.) that rigs many elections from the outset (see below).

How gerrymandering works

Credit: Washington Post

Character Matters, But Issues Matter More

Some people have less charisma than socks-in-sandals. Nobody wants a leader like that. We’re choosing someone to represent us on the national or international stage as the face of our political community, after all. He or she has to be relatable, not robotic.

That said, a smarmy, silver-tongued demagogue with bad ideas is much worse than an awkward nerd with good ones. Policy — not personality — is what affects people’s lives. Keep that in mind as you watch a debate.

When a candidate makes an assertion or accusation, whether or not you like what was said, ask yourself this:

Do I agree with the point that was made? Or do I merely like/dislike the person who made it?

(If it’s the latter, you’ve fallen victim to the Genetic Fallacy — see below.)

Reflect on What Is Left Unsaid and Who Is Left Unheard

Total speaking time during first Democratic debate of 2019. Credit: New York TImes

Pay attention to who is being denied speaking time (candidates are allocated time based on their polling numbers going into the debate). In this format, the most well-known candidates get the most time to speak, which makes them even more well-known and popular. The opposite is true for the lesser-known people on stage. In other words, the rich get richer.

Most important, be on guard for unsupported assertions. The relative brevity of televised political “debates,” which allows each candidate only a few minutes to espouse their positions, does not provide an opportunity for in-depth discussion. They have time only to state their rehearsed speaking-points, and perhaps drop a few memorable zingers. There is little, if any, time given for follow-ups or cross-examination.

An authentic debate would provide the opportunity to hold people accountable for their statements. For instance, the Conservatives in Canada love to shit all over the concept of a carbon tax, designed to discourage the use of fossil fuels in order to begin the gradual transition to renewable energy. They say that the tax is making people poorer. But they routinely, and conveniently, fail to mention that the majority of consumers receive rebates to compensate them for the extra money they’ll pay at the pumps (see link below).

And then there’s the liar-in-chief himself. When President Trump claims this…

Source: Twitter

…the immediate response should be to show the world this:

Source: Mueller Report Volume II, p. 8.

Rule #3: Make up stories and deny the facts, because most people are too lazy to investigate for themselves. After all:

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.

— Jonathan Swift

Rediscovering Real Debate

To hold true to their name, political debates should allow for lengthy, robust conversations that can illuminate the nuances inherent to complex issues that affect us all. The debates that take place at the famous Oxford Union and in the Intelligence Squared series demonstrate what real debate looks like. (In fact, IQ² has even offered to stage pre-election debates in the US. Maybe we ought to consider it!)

Are low corporate taxes very good or very bad for society and the economy? Do guns make us more safe or less safe? Neither, and neither. Let’s discuss these tough questions like civilized people who care about what’s best for society, rather than only about winning power at any cost.

I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.

2018 winner of the Dalton Camp Award for essay-writing. M.A. Political Science. I'll go to the mat for the Oxford comma.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store