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Wednesday, October 12, 2016


What, after all, is a DEBATE?  Probably not what we have witnessed between political candidates on either the Republican or Democratic sides during primaries.  Certainly not the current so-called Presidential debates that are more to be endured than taken seriously.  The debate held on Sunday, October 9, 2016 was less a debate and more of a debacle.

Debating has been a time-honored enterprise, sometimes called a contest, sometimes called a competitive sport.  Most debates involve at least a challenge (or challenges), but what few people recall, perhaps, is that debates have always been centered around a proposition that is argued according to certain rules, and within certain parameters.  Let’s take a brief look at how debates are variously defined in dictionaries:
“To take part in a formal discussion or a contest in which opposing sides of a question are argued”
“To dispute about, especially in a meeting or legislature”

“A formal contest of skill in reasoned argument, with two teams taking opposite sides of a specified question”
“To discuss opposing reasons; argue, deliberate, dispute about”

Debate is contention in argument, especially formal discussion of subjects before a public assembly.”
It seems clear from these definitions that some sort of serious deliberation is involved in debating.  It also seems that there are some parameters or rules by which a debate is contested, and that there is some sort of proposition, question, or issue that is the object of the debate or deliberation. Nowhere, apparently, is there any reference to a debate being about insults, innuendo, mocking, or personal attacks of character or persona.  In fact, the basic rules of debating discourage such behavior, just as they discourage general statements or declarations not backed up by detailed explanation.  Perhaps most of all, a debate is not the place for raising tangential issues or sidetracking the issue(s)-at-hand.  Instead, debating is meant to stay focused on the issue(s), and attempt, through cogent and detailed argument, to prove or disprove a proposition, or to show, through the best arguments and proof, what side of an issue is preferred.

With that brief attempt at providing some definition, let us look at some rules of debate, keeping in mind that rules do vary based on the locale or the purpose of the debate.  For instance, some debates are quite formal and competitive and the rules are more detailed.  In other situations, where the purpose may be less competitive, the rules may be more basic. 
Some basic rules of debate: (with references from;;

  • To declare that the other side is wrong is not enough. You have to show why the other side is wrong.  This is best done by taking a main point of the other side’s argument and showing that it does not make sense.  In order to establish an assertion, the team must support it with enough evidence and logic to convince an intelligent but previously uninformed person that it is more reasonable to believe the assertion than to disbelieve it. Facts must be accurate.
  • Try to rebut the most important points of the other side’s case.  No new constructive arguments may be introduced in the rebuttal period. Reply to the major negative arguments before the last rebuttal.
  • If there is a questioning period, the questioner may ask any fair, clear question that has a direct bearing on the debate. The questioner may use the period to build up any part of her own case, to tear down any part of the opposition's case, or to ascertain facts, such as the opposition's position on a certain issue, that can be used later in the debate. The questioner must confine himself to questions and not make statements, comments, or ask rhetorical questions.
  • Do not criticize the individual speakers, criticize what they say. One writer – Jack O’Dwyer – reminds us: “(I) was a member of a debating team in college and the No. 1 rule was that no ‘personal remarks’ about debating opponents were allowed. Only subject matter could be discussed. Anyone who broke this rule was immediately slapped down.”
  • The manner is how you present what you say and the best manner style is definitely not to shout and thump the table but to keep calm and present your points with a clear speaking voice.
What may not come across here is that there are some very well-defined rules for some types of debate, to such an extent that those rules are collected and maintained by certain codifications or groups (Robert’s Rules of Order, Competitive Debate: Rules and Techniques, by George McCoy Musgrave. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1957, and The Commission on Presidential Debates).   This includes a set of rules for the Presidential TV debates, a brief history of which is found in Wikipedia (which may partly explain the diminution of debate and the rise of the debacle).  

“Beginning with the 1976 election, the League of Women Voters sponsored the televised Ford-Carter debates, followed by the Anderson-Reagan and Reagan-Carter debates for the 1980 election, followed by Reagan-Mondale in 1984.  After studying the election process in 1985, the bipartisan National Commission on Elections recommended ‘[t]urning over the sponsorship of Presidential debates to the two major parties’. The CPD was established in 1987 by the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties to ‘take control of the Presidential debates’. The commission was staffed by members from the two parties and chaired by the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties.”  
The formats for the 90-minute debates are supposedly “designed to facilitate in-depth discussion of the leading issues facing the nation,” but they instead cover everything from the size of the parking lot to the temperature in the auditorium.  Much space is devoted to just such format details.  The rules governing conduct of the debate itself are also detailed in terms of format, but lacking in much substance as regards actual rules of debating.  For instance, here are samples of the summary format for the last debate that aired:
Second presidential debate (October 9, 2016, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO)
The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which half of the questions will be posed directly by citizen participants and the other half will be posed by the moderator based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources. The candidates will have two minutes to respond and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion. The town meeting participants will be uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization.
All debates will be moderated by a single individual and will run from 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time without commercial breaks. As always, the moderators alone will select the questions to be asked, which are not known to the CPD or to the candidates. The moderators will have the ability both to extend the segments and to ensure that the candidates have equal speaking time. While the focus will properly be on the candidates, the moderator will regulate the conversation so that thoughtful and substantive exchanges occur. The CPD is in discussion with technology and civic groups that will provide data to the moderators to assist them in identifying the subjects that are most important to the public.”
Finding rules of actual debate is much more difficult.  So what we have here is a Commission basically devoted to details of venue, set-up, participants, and entertainment, rather than a Commission devoted to substantive discussion of critical issues.  In spite of all the hype about substantive questions collected from audiences through social media and elsewhere, it was not until about the 87-minute mark in the debate that the questioners/moderators actually had gotten a trio of major issues into the debate – namely the Supreme Court, guns and race.
So, in conclusion, let me present some observations about the debate itself and then I have a few suggestions for future debates.
  1. What we saw was not a debate but a mud-fest.  It basically followed no rules but those of format, and even that did not work very well, since one of those rules was that one speaker will not invade the other’s space during the time when one or the other is speaking.  Donald Trump violated that provision with major frequency and impunity.
  2. In such a mud-fest, there are no winners or losers, just two people who are covered with mud
  3. On the subject of winner and loser:  this is nothing but a huge farce perpetrated upon the gullible public by a media intent on boosting ratings and promoting absurd speculation. 
Real debate winners are judged by qualified judges who follow particular criteria for scoring debates and judging winners based on those scores and on those criteria.  In Presidential debates – and in subsequent polls taken afterward – there are no criteria used to rate performance or to score results.  The judgment of ‘winner’ is entirely emotional and subjective.  The question asked of those polled is entirely without any criteria attached, and thus each person polled uses their own measuring stick, their own criteria and their own feelings.  All of which immediately makes all such polls invalid simply because there is no common bases on which to decide who won.  Such a poll is not a “national” poll – it does not measure according to a common national standard – it is simply a poll of individual sentiment, meaning that every answer is made according to that one individual’s beliefs and emotions, not according to objective criteria.
  1. A review of the basic rules of debate (above) indicates that this was not a debate, in any sense of that word:
    1. Innuendo, questionable accusations, inaccurate statistics, allegations of wrong-doing, personal insults, made-up or slanted stories, and most of all, threats of reprisal, are not the foundations of a debate; in fact, they are contrary to the basic rules of debating.  
    2. The lack of substantive evidence either in rebuttal or presentation of one’s side of an issue was so lacking that one has to wonder – why bother?  What is the sense of even having a debate if no actual evidence is brought forth to prove the efficacy of one’s side?  Mr. Trump failed miserably on this criterion; Mrs. Clinton at least presented some figures mostly in relation to healthcare and taxes.
    3. There were no substantive arguments presented on major issues.  The issues all took flight so that matters of personal conduct could be vetted before an anticipatory audience.  Once again, those who benefitted from such foolishness were not the voters, but the entertainment companies and their sponsors.  Left in the dust were major issues like: joblessness and job creation, crumbling infrastructure, Social Security, Medicare, single payer health system, gun violence, immigration, etc.  Every time a serious issue was proposed or even suggested, it was quickly undermined and abandoned in favor of personal attacks and accusations, which are antithetical to any substantive debate.
    4. Because there were no rules of debate, the antagonists were allowed to veer away from the issue at hand and to shift the emphasis to other unrelated issues or accusations.  Such behavior is unacceptable in real debates.  One must stick to the issue at hand and not introduce new issues or material or propositions.  Not only does this produce a version of chaos, it violates a basic rule of debate.  The job of the moderator of a debate is to call the protagonists on this when it occurs.  The two moderators did try to do that at times, but were mostly unsuccessful, mainly because the rules were not clear nor accepted nor adhered to by either side.
    5. Finally, the manner of presentation was simply not important, mostly to Mr. Trump who snorted and sniffed, scowled and grimaced through most of the debate.  But, of course, the major flaw in his manner was to invade his opponent’s space for purposes of distraction and pestering (bullying?) his opponent.  Such behavior is not acceptable in any real debate, and it should have been called out by the moderators.  However, they were hamstrung by lack of rules and sanctions (subtraction of points) and so did nothing.  Another sign that this was far from a real debate.
What, then, might be done to make the third Presidential Debate into something that resembles a real debate with some basic ground rules?  I have a few suggestions:
  1. Have issues-based questions or propositions prepared before the debate in a format that allows for an argument positive or negative from both sides; examples:
o        RESOLVED, the infrastructure of this nation must be 25% rebuilt or refurbished within the next 8 years; OR:
o        What specific projects would you propose be undertaken to begin rebuilding the infrastructure of this nation in the next 8 years?
o        Automation is an imminent threat to many blue and white collar jobs within the next decade; what would you propose to do: 1) to prepare our workers for job loss and 2) to prepare the nation for on-going high unemployment caused by such automation
o        What will you do in your first term to start, maintain and invest in alternative fuel businesses, to reduce fossil fuel pollution, and act to protect workers who lose jobs
  1. Allow enough time for each proponent to advance their answer or plan in some detail – perhaps 5 minutes for presentation and 3 minutes for rebuttal; limit the number of issues discussed to 5 or fewer (there can still be wide audience participation online which can lay some groundwork for the prepared questions)
  2. Ban all innuendo, accusations and personal attacks, and stick to the issue-at-hand
  3. Score the debate based on criteria put together by experts in the debate field, and judged by such experts. Allow points to be withdrawn based on rule violations
  4. Ban all polls for winners following the debate, unless those polls are based on the expert criteria used to score the debate
  5. Stick to the issues and ban all side-tracking or changing of subject
  6. Civil manner of presentation must be enforced by moderators: no personal attacks, no encroaching on other’s space, no interruptions, no threats
  7. No in-house audience participation at all except at beginning and end when they may applaud as allowed
If we’re going to have Presidential Debates, let us at least follow some basic rules: keep on the subject-at-hand, provide logical and cogent arguments, lay out positions and proposals that are backed up by facts or acceptable means of proof, and provide time for presentation and rebuttal without interruption.  It’s past time to hear what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump plan for us, instead of being subjected to what they abhor about each other (and want us to believe, as well).