"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act V, Scene V)
When I was in high school, one of my classes required that students participate in regularly scheduled group debates. We were assigned to argue a specific side of a topic, with our grades resting on the teacher’s judgment of the strength of the cases we presented. Needless to say, being a disaffected teenager, I found the exercise frustratingly pointless, because the grading meant that “other side” would never concede that their opponent’s argument made more sense or consider accepting a more neutral, balanced view. On the contrary, doing well seemed to be defined by making a strong argument, sticking to it, and never backing down. What, I thought, was the point of that?
A “debate” is defined as a formal argument of two opposing views, but just what is the point of a debate? How should winning be defined? Should winning even be the goal?
There are a number of different types of formal debate, each with somewhat different objectives. The kind I had in high school is the most common, with two sides presenting opposing arguments and responding to counter-arguments. More recently, some debaters have taken an altogether different approach. In 2013, the Emporia State University Debate Team won the National Championships of the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) and the National Debate Tournament by completely ignoring the assigned debate topic and instead arguing that the collegiate debate format is inherently biased in favor of privileged, white, middle-class students (for more details, listen to the story in Radiolab’s episode “Debatable”). A similar approach was employed by the winners of the 2014 CEDA Championships from Towson University, Ameema Ruffun and Korey Johnson, the first ever African American women to win the contest. As you might expect, this kind of deconstructionist approach to “meta-debate” is highly controversial, with some finding the new approach refreshingly democratizing and others dismissing it as “politically correct fraud” that should be prohibited.
With no consensus, how to properly conduct debates—and it would seem, the very purpose of debating—has itself become a subject of considerable debate.
Do the Presidential Debates Influence Voting?
With the 2016 presidential debates now upon us, the purpose of debating is worth thinking about.
The New York Times recently reported that Hillary Clinton has enlisted help from “psychology experts” to prepare for the debates. This is actually something of an ironic approach, since research from psychology, sociology, and political science suggests that—in contrast to primary debates—the presidential debates may not actually have much of an impact on voter's decisions.1
At this late stage in the race, and with the country’s present state of polarization, the debates are more likely to “reinforce existing predispositions considerably” while “actually changing them very little,”2 regardless of candidates' performances. This lack of impact seems to occur because of our own confirmation biases, such that we typically go into the debates supporting a candidate and then rating performances and judging a winner based on our pre-existing support for a specific candidate or party and opposition to the other side.3 Similarly, our biases are further reinforced by post-debate analysis from our favorite partisan-affiliated media sources.4
Despite the popular tale about how JFK beat a recently hospitalized Nixon by looking far more polished on national TV, or how Reagan rebounded from a weak start with his “zinger” about Mondale’s youthful inexperience, actual polling numbers tell a different story, with only modest shifts of a few percentage points after presidential debates dating back to 1960.
In theory though, that small degree of change could end up being decisive when there are a large number of undecided voters or in a narrow race. Indeed, the margin of victory in US presidential races has been fairly tight in recent years. For example, in 2000 Bush gained 3% to pass Gore in the polls after the first debate, well over the narrow margin of nearly stalemated race that was decided by just 5 electoral votes. However, while the past three US presidential races have also been decided by a relatively slim margin 2.5 to 7.3% of the popular vote, the post-debate polling numbers in those elections either moved in favor of the eventual loser (twice) or did not exceed the margin of victory for the winner (once). It’s therefore generally accepted that the outcome of few if any presidential races have actually been influenced by the debates in any significant way.
To top it off, these days the majority of US households don’t even tune into the presidential debates, with declining viewership since they were first televised in the 1960s (though this decline may be overestimated since it doesn’t take into account online viewership).5 It therefore appears that while watching the debates is rated by voters as the “most helpful” source of information in deciding how to vote,5 the presidential debates may be full of sound and fury, but ultimately signify nothing.
How Do We Decide Who Wins?
Although viewership may be declining, it’s estimated that this year's presidential debates may be a different story, with viewership expected to surge considerably, attracting some 100 million sets of eyes Monday night. Since it’s likely that the vast majority of viewers will already have their choice locked in (8% of voters are said to be undecided), maybe part of the point of tuning in is to get a sense of who other people might vote for and who might win come November rather than anything to do with our own individual choices. That might be especially pertinent with current polling numbers for Clinton v. Trump suggesting a dead heat.
Then again, maybe with this year’s match-up, turning on the debates is just like turning on any other TV show—it's mostly about entertainment, with an eye towards style over substance. In an era when candidates are expected to make a regular circuit around late-night talk shows, and Clinton is said to have scored a coup by appearing on Zach Galifianakis' Between Two Ferns, have the debates become a kind of reality TV show? Are viewers dying to see how Clinton and Trump will present themselves in the same way that they anticipate the potential meltdown of the designated villain on The Bachelor? Are we tuning in this year in particular because of the possibility that it might degenerate into a circus act?
Beyond the spectacle of the debates, it's also worth considering how viewers and media analysts will judge the winner. What do voters want candidates to do in a debate and what do we want in a president? Someone who remains immovably steadfast, not budging from their position despite the fact that half the country disagrees? Someone who attempts to show strength by rattling their opponent with ad hominem attacks? Is that really how we want American politics to go?
In India, the most popular style of school debating is the “turncoat debate” in which both the “pro” and “con” arguments are presented by the same debater, with a concluding statement synthesizing the opposing views. Winners are determined by the strength of both “pro” and “con” arguments as well as the ability to find balance. If what our country really needs now is someone who can unify disparity and resolve conflict, would it be too modest a proposal to suggest that the debates adopt the turncoat format?
If a clear winner emerged from that kind of debate, wouldn’t we all be winners?
Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/psychunseen/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/psychunseen. To check out some of my fiction, click here to read the short story "Thermidor," published in Westwind earlier this year.
1. McKinney MS, Warner BR. Do presidential debates matter? Examining a decade of campaign debate effects. Argumentation and Advocacy 2013; 49:238-258.
2. Hagner PR, Rieselbach LN. The impact of the 1976 presidential debates: conservion or reinforcement? In Bishop GF et al (eds) The Presidential Debates. New York: Praeger, 1978.
3. Geer JG. The effects of the presidential debates on the electorate’s preferences for candidates. American Politics Quarterly 1988, 16:486-501.
4. Fridkin KL, Kenney PJ, Gershon SA, Shafer K, Woodall GS. Capturing the power of a campaign event: The 2004 presidential debate in Tempe. The Journal of Politics 2007; 69:770-85.
5. Holz J, Akin H, Jamieson KH. Presidential debates: What’s behind the numbers? White Paper, The Annenberg Public Policy Center, September 2016.