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A Reflection on the US Primary Race from afar


Dear Reader,
This a short reflection on US politics. Alas, no pictures of beautiful mountains, children and bilas this time. But I promise that we’ll make up for it in the next post!
Last week I was trying to gather some information about the Republican primary debates. I soon came to the conclusion that they are not just a useless exercise but probably harmful. First, we must admit that it was not a debate. In a debate, one person argues for a position and another person tries to refute their arguments and establish a different position. Modern debates tend to be more like interrogations – the moderator forces each candidate to respond to the question the moderator is interested in. Second, the time limit of just a minute or two per answer destroys the possibility of real communication. How can one present a response to a complicated political or social issue, explain the reasons behind it, and differentiate it from the plans of others in two minutes? Instead, the short time limits support the false idea that there are easy answers to the issues of our time and limit the candidates to slogans and superficialities. Third, the very format of the debate thus furthers the ambitions of bogus and vanity candidates by rewarding slick or entertaining appearances and pandering to the audience, and by making actual exchange of ideas and policies impossible. Some candidates, I hope, would like to challenge some of the presuppositions of the Republican base, but in the further format this is impossible.
What then would I suggest? Assign each debate a general topic such as terrorism, foreign policy, the economy, social issues, the environment and natural resources, etc. Within that general topic have four or five subtopics. For example, under foreign policy, the subtopics could be Middle East, Russia and Europe, China and the Asian Pacific, Africa and the developing world. One hour before the debate, or even at the beginning of the day, each candidate would be randomly paired with another, assigned a subtopic, and given the lead or response. The lead would speak on his topic for 15 minutes, the response give a 20 minute rebuttal and counter-proposal, and the lead have a 5 minute response. Then, you move on to the next pair. Obviously this would take time, but the substantial candidates would very quickly be differentiated from the jokers. While there might be some arbitrariness in how the topics are divided; it would be less arbitrary than just leaving all the questions to the fiat of the moderator.
But you might argue that this format would not be entertaining – that the American public is not interested in detailed policy debates or having their ideas challenged, and that the public lacks the attention span to follow such a discourse. If this is true, then perhaps we should admit that the American experiment (the founding of a democratic nation on ideas) has failed.

1 Comment

  1. I just don’t think you’d get what you want out of the format. Managing long blocks of time so as to respond to arguments is a definite skill that has to be specifically taught, and the candidates don’t have it. Only years of highly focused coaching and judging make HS students able to manage more than about 3-4 minutes of speech time in a focused way that has more than moderate clash with opponents. You’re just going to get 20 minutes of slogans instead of 2.

    Second, does this really make sense for a primary? Someone like Trump obviously has no interest in debating. It might work if you have Rand versus a more establishment candidate. But the difference between the main candidates like Rubio, Bush, Walker, Kasich, etc, is not primarily policy: with a few exceptions, they all hew closely to the platform and mainstream of the party. They are campaigning on who can best execute that vision. And for that, the interrogation format actually seems more fitting.



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