The Lost Art of Debate

This recent election cycle has been nothing if not revelatory. Who would have guessed that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were the harbingers of a populist revolt that would leave both major parties in the throes of identity crisis?

But enough punditry; those are considerations for the political class. While they meet behind closed doors in Washington, We the People should revisit the ancient and sacred art of civil debate and contemplate why so many of us abandoned it.

This isn’t to say that people haven’t fought for what they believe in. Indeed, part of the problem is that many of us confuse fighting with debate. Debate requires patience, empathy, clarity, and above all, an open mind. Fighting requires very little beyond the hubris to mistake conviction for virtue (for examples, visit Facebook, YouTube, or twitter).

To debate someone you have to respect them enough to let them finish a sentence. You have to be willing to let them construct an argument against you under the assumption that you will later be able to successfully challenge its premise. You must also open yourself to the idea that there are realistic limits to your own knowledge and perception.

The bravest thing you can do is give someone time to speak against you. Conversely, resorting to ad hominem, laying waste to innumerable straw men, and shutting out dissent are the strategies of cowards: the easy way out.

Too often these days we lack the bravery to face our ideological opponents. We go online and read news sources that confirm our opinions; we shame our detractors into silence; we withdraw to be with our own kind. Consider that this year over 1,700 counties voted with margins 20 points different than the national vote while only around 250 voted within 5 points of the national vote. At the Washington Post, Phillip Bump writes that two thirds of Clinton and Trump supporters had few to no friends supporting the other candidate. The lukewarm comfort of our echo chambers keeps us content to ignore that ours is a big world.

Nowhere has this tendency become as evident as on college campuses, which have sadly become ideologically homogeneous to the point of enfeeblement. Recently, colleges have developed a disturbing trend of turning away controversial speakers at the request of students. Between 2015 and 2016, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education counts 52 attempts to disinvite speakers based on student opposition, of which 24 were successful.

Following the election of Donald Trump, there was a widespread and embarrassing exhibition of incredulity. The dangers and consequences of the echo chamber were made apparent.

Rather than take this as an opportunity for introspection, some have chosen to double down. More than a few colleges granted accommodations to their students, ranging from postponing exams to providing “breathing spaces”—rooms containing pets and coloring books—to students who felt stressed by the results. Many smart people took to social media to excoriate others they’d never met, or tried to understand. Is it any wonder that those who have shied from ideological opposition wither in its face?

A closed mind cannot aspire to persuasion. A theory is not made stronger without facing resistance. If you want people to listen to you, as presumably we all do, you should be willing to hear them out. That means reading news from sources that make you uncomfortable and trying to engage people who aren’t like you without writing them off as bigots. It means reaffirming the value of unpopular speech, denouncing censorship, and moving past identity politics. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

For the good of our society, it’s time to revive the art of debate and put aside the intellectual lethargy that precludes it.

Stakes is High

In 1996 De La Soul released Stakes is High. The album contains a running theme of concern for the state of hip-hop. In various skits throughout the album, members of the group fret over the decline of industry integrity, as the genre intensified its flirtation with gangster culture. The album feels like a fitting soundtrack to this election.

In 2016 America played its own high-stakes game, electing a president who, throughout the course of his campaign, displayed an alarming illiteracy of or indifference to the United States’ Constitution. Perhaps more unsettling than his ignorance, he often demonstrated a predilection for authoritarian governance, at various times idolizing Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin.

How did we get here? It didn’t happen over night. During times of war American presidents have sought—and often obtained—powers that far exceed the intended scope of the office. Foreign (and at times domestic) threats have been used to justify a litany of unilateral actions and circumvent civil liberties since the First World War. The creeping expanse of Executive power is a feature of a nation inured to a perpetual state of war.

The last two presidents were no exception to this pattern. President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and issued hundreds of signing statements and executive orders, further compromising the balance of checks and balances between the branches of government.

President Obama continued this trend of erosion, sidestepping Congress on immigration, bombing in Libya, funding the Affordable Care Act, and more.

Partisanship contributed to this phenomenon. Instead of taking principled stands against overreach at all times, members of Congress and the American people have preferred to do so only when it meant thwarting the other team. That cheapens what should be a shared concern of imbalanced government.

In a few months we will have to contend with a President Trump who, as of yet, seems unable to demonstrate a hint of restraint. It’s hard to image that he will adhere to a parochial interpretation of the presidency, especially armed with decades of precedent that suggests there’s really no need to do so.

Democrats and Republicans in office should take every step to right the wrongs of the past and contain the power of the president. Citizens, for their part, must come to regard presidential overreach as the danger it really is or risk a further slide toward tyranny. We must all remember that while authoritarianism may be sweet when your side is winning, it can quickly turn bitter. The stakes, as they say, are high.

The Political Impoverishment of America

We’re coming off one hell of a Friday. Released material of both the Democratic and Republican nominees confirms the fears of their respective less-than-fervent supporters: namely that Clinton is an opportunistic liar and that Trump exhibits a moral deficiency that should and will render him unelectable.

A third, fourth, or fifth voice in tomorrow’s debate would be pretty nice right about now.

Unfortunately for We the People, that’s not really up to us. The decision falls solely within the purview of the Commission on Presidential Debates: a non-profit run by the Democratic and Republican parties–because why not? The CPD sets a threshold of 15% that a prospective candidate must reach in 5 national polls, which are conducted in part by some heavily partisan organizations and may not include third party candidates’ names at all.

Somehow, in the same country where we have more types of shoes and deodorant than Bernie Sanders can shake a stick at, we’re left with a binary choice (in practical terms) when it comes to electing a national leader.

For those of us who equate choice with wealth, it’s no shock that severe barriers to entry have left us politically poorer than we should be. Most Americans, after all, are not members of either major party and probably hold an eclectic set of views. Neither candidate is viewed favorably by the public.

But alas, this is life under political duopoly where the players are also the referees. It’s understandable that the two major parties wouldn’t be excited about the prospect of ceding some of their influence. What’s less understandable is the willingness of American “intelligentsia” to play along.

The New York Times has gone into full attack mode to dissuade voters from seeking alternative presidential options. From the opinion section, Paul Krugman and Charles Blow submit missives that malign voters whose opinions diverge from their own (infuriatingly, Krugman’s column, entitled “Vote as if It Matters”, tells voters that “nobody cares” if they use their votes in protest).

Less forgivably, writing in the Politics section can be found using discredited scare tactics to frighten voters away from making their own choices:

And, in what is one of the most difficult barriers for Mrs. Clinton to break through, young people often display little understanding of how a protest vote for a third-party candidate, or not voting at all, can alter the outcome of a close election.

The vast majority of millennials were not old enough to vote in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party nominee and, with the strong backing of young voters, helped cost Vice President Al Gore the presidency.

Hypothesis easily turns to axiom in a feedback loop. Instead of looking inward (300,000 registered Democrats voted for Bush in Florida in 2000), partisans choose to punch down at political minorities (Nader had 90,000 votes in Florida, only 24,000 of which were from registered Democrats) because that absolves them of the responsibility to produce better candidates.

Like any cartel, the political establishment excels at serving itself while being unresponsive to clients (voters). As long as the electorate is willing to swallow the idea that they must choose between the options laid out for them by Democrats and Republicans, that isn’t going to change. The truth is we do have a choice; it’s just a matter of exercising it.

No, Voting Third Party Isn’t a Waste

Given the historically unpopular candidates presented to us, 2016 should be the year Americans are encouraged to expand our political horizons.

Instead, people interested in a non-binary choice this election face a litany of derisions and insistences that their political preferences should take a back seat to a greater mission of ensuring that either Clinton or Trump not take the White House.

Underneath it all is the accusation—outright or implied—that voting for a third party candidate is a waste of time: a selfish, brazen gesture best left for a less pivotal year.

This is a terrible argument. There’s no such thing as wasting your vote if you’re doing what you want with it: it’s yours! Vote for candidate A, B, or C; don’t vote; write in your uncle’s name. It doesn’t matter. The only real way to waste your vote is to let someone else tell you how to use it.

Once you’ve been dutifully informed by some clairvoyant pundit that you’re wasting your vote by using it the way you want to, the dismissal of third party candidates based on their remote chances of victory is never far behind. This is profoundly confused; a vote isn’t a bet. There’s no prize for picking the candidate that ends up winning.

The point of a representative democracy–other than to elect leaders–is to convey national preferences to politicians (does anyone believe Ralph Nader’s relative success as a Green Party candidate had no impact on the Democrats’ current environmental stances?). The best way to do this is for everyone to vote for candidates and ideas that appeal to them. The worst thing voters can do is reward unresponsive parties with loyalty: that only begets more unresponsiveness.

Increased interest in third parties let’s Democrats and Republicans know they’re off track. In that sense, and especially to anyone interested in the integrity and evolution of our political discourse, third parties have an important role as the barometers of American political attitudes, if not yet heavyweight contenders for the presidency.

Remember: only a very small minority of our country has actually voted for Clinton or Trump at this point! There’s no reason for the rest of us, who have actively or passively declared our disinterest in both, to feel pressured to line up behind either of them. Some will, and that’s fine if it’s what they want at the end of the day; in fact, I’m happy they’ve found something they can believe in. But it’s not unreasonable for the rest of us to pursue options that we find more personally appealing.

Pluralism and diversity are, at least ostensibly, integral to the American political experience. I can think of nothing worse for our nation than a fear-driven dichotomy whereby we are encouraged to re-imagine second worst as synonymous with best. If we want to be happy with the results of our electoral process, we should start by being more honest about what we want from politicians. The best way to do that is in the voting booth.