How Does a Professor of Speech and Debate Watch the US Presidential Debates?

The short answer is: Carefully, with conflicted revulsion.

Every election cycle, I have a crisis. I am never sure how to approach, understand, or evaluate these Presidential debates that, like a terrible addiction, we can’t wait to ingest. I want people to engage in conversations about big ideas; I also fear these events are structured in a way not only to avoid the democratic responsibilities of those running for office, but to monopolize the definition of what debate in a democracy is. That, to me, is terrifying.

If I didn’t care, I would wave you off of watching the Presidential debates. The major reason is that they are not debates. They do a disservice to the art that I’ve spent most of my life studying and teaching to others. They are a money grab — they are hosted by institutions in order to gain publicity and name recognition; they are televised to sell advertisements and generate content that can be shown hourly to generate even more ad revenue. They are constructed and controlled by an organization — the commission on presidential debates — that does not value debate outside of using it to protect the two major parties’ candidates.

But for some strange reason, I care anyway. My idealistic, hopeful side believes there might be a way to watch these events that doesn’t ruin a healthy conception of debating. Perhaps ironically, the Presidential debates are a good way to teach why debate must be structured in a certain way to be valuable.

There is no correct way to watch the Presidential debates save watching them to determine who won. They are designed to be unwinnable. They are designed to avoid deep examination of evidence and argument, with barely enough time for a candidate to get an idea out before the next topic (not the next speaker, mind you) is brought up. This is by design, of course. But the design is not for the purpose of healthy debate.

Healthy debate has several elements that are absent from Presidential debate. The first is a clear, stable topic. Good debate topics are statements (not questions) that can either be agreed to or rejected. They might require a deeper stance by a candidate to make sense. For example, the statement, “We should restrict immigration to the United States” might spark a lot of agreement, until we find out how the person plans to do this, i.e. “We should build a wall.” It’s legitimate to agree with both statements, given you are persuaded. But it’s also legitimate to agree that immigration should be fixed and reject the proposed method. This would mean that you, as a decision maker, would have to reject the topic as well if there were no other proposals floating about. If the other side offers a different immigration proposal, or even suggests that it should not be restricted but perhaps regulated differently, that would mean you choose their position. A clear topic allows you to make such evaluations. If debaters only get questions they do what politicians love to do — talk about their own ideas without engaging the ideas of anyone else. If you have the question “What is your plan for immigration?” It avoids the requirement of debate to engage the ideas of the other side. Without such engagement, without direct comparison by the speakers to the idea, we don’t have a debate. We have verbal speculation, and we are left to judge on whatever criteria we want — often with very mixed results.

Speaking of judgement, some clear rules about how the debate should be decided need to be present as well. The rules about how much time each candidate gets are irrelevant, unless you are interested in generating sound bites and ad revenue. Those rules must be based on the requirements of a speaker to offer a clear and compelling case. What would that contain? In law, the requirements of a proper case depend on the charges, the evidence, the jurisdiction, and the like. In congress, there are clear rules about a bill and what it must contain to come before the representatives. This is the case in any elected government, or in any organization that makes decisions, such as Rotary club. Why can’t we have this in Presidential debate? For the event to be a debate there must be requirements as to what a candidate must advance when asked their position on an issue. When responding, they must take issue with one or more of these elements. How difficult is that? But we won’t see it, precisely because it puts the burden of labor on the candidates, not where they want it which is on us to make up our own rules. This makes having conversations about who won difficult if not impossible since there is no shared evaluative standard.

The most frustrating thing for me as a teacher of debate and speech watching these presidential debates has to be the limited view of debate that the media, the commission, the candidates, and unfortunately, we take of debating. Debating is not a competition in the recitation of correct information, nor is it a competition to see how far from the facts we can skirt our speech. Debate has, and always will be, the ultimate discourse for determining what we should do when we don’t have complete or preferred information. The debate represented between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton has more to do with debate than any of these events we’ll see over the next two months. Why? Because the debate in that situation is speculative about what we should do. It is constructed in a way that makes judgement easy. We are meant to determine which of these two positions is the better choice based on what we know. The presidential debates are not structured to make judgement easy. They are fractured; one often only gets 2 minutes of discussion about the economy, immigration, or another gigantic issue, and arbitrarily the journalist moves the conversation along before it can develop. This is evidence that presidential debates are structured to make judgment hard — how can we determine who has the best plan when we are shoved a number of plans on a number of issues with barely time to taste each option?

We can’t. We’re not meant to. The commission on presidential debates does not structure these events for us, the American people. What they are interested in is the two major parties — the organizing question for them is, “How can we protect our party?” rather than “how can we create an event for just disposition on an issue?” Just think to yourself for a minute what elements of debate would help you as a voter make a decision on either candidate. Chances are, not one is present in the Presidential debates. The debates generate sound bites for the news cycle, and both sides hope to land the sound bite that will be repeated so often that it becomes an ear-worm for your decision. Their goal is to short-circuit difficulty for them by eliminating the potential for judgement from you. The candidates would have to work much harder to make the debate something for you to be able to use in the terms of decision making.

But this doesn’t mean these events are useless or should be avoided. On the contrary, they are probably the most discussed political speeches that either candidate will give this term. And don’t forget your local election debates — unfortunately, the presidential debate model trickles down through all aspects of the US political system, so you won’t see much difference. But these are important as moments where candidates state jointly, and often within the context of one another, their positions on things. This creates some value. First, it allows you to see each candidate speak in a space where their opponent is present. Secondly, this sparks conversation with those you work and live with about the election, the issues and candidates. They are valuable rhetorical resources for constructing your own persuasive messages about the election. But most importantly, these serve as places to confront the “don’t know.” If you hear about an issue during the presidential debates, and you don’t know enough to determine what position you would favor, this is a great gift. It’s a gift that directs you toward research, reading, and engagement in issues you don’t know much about. These events can spark uncertainty in your own views — forget the candidates’ views, what do you think about immigration? War? Poverty? Chances are you can spend some time reading thoughtful essays on the internet about pretty much any of these issues. You can learn from the ignorance of these events by trying to figure out what you would say. If you don’t think it’s good enough, improve it. Do some searching. Do some reading. Try again.

Debate’s power, the best thing about it, is how it transforms lives through hubris, that feeling of falling you get after you believe you are right. It’s not pleasant at all — but it is good. It’s the price of democracy, really. And it appears through well-crafted speeches in the debates we have with one another. Perhaps the way to watch these events is with an eye toward having a better conversation about these issues with your political opponents in your community. You certainly could do it if these people, with all the power and tricks on their side in the organization of their debates, still turn in terrible performances election after election.

But they still are not debates. A lot needs to happen before they become debates. These changes probably won’t ever happen as long as we continue to support the two major parties’ exclusivity. But in the meantime, let’s use the grist they produce to better ourselves, our ideas, and our approaches to the difficult, laborious, and necessary task of debate. If they won’t do it, we should.