Friday, August 7, 2015

The Debate

On the reasonable assumption that almost any normal activity would be marginally more interesting and more morally satisfying than watching a bunch of Republican candidates "debate" each other on (of all places) the Fox channel, I chose to do something else. I did, however, intermittently sneak a few occasional peaks at some snippets of the "Debate," just in case someone on stage might surprise. 

An analogy-prone acquaintance suggested that, not unlike the way many formerly serious events - for example, news programs and even some religious services - have increasingly taken their cue from entertainment in recent decades, our political campaigns are increasingly essentially entertainment spectacles. Certainly that is true of what passes for a "debate," a format ill-suited even at its best to the discussion of serious policy issues, even assuming anyone actually might try to employ it for that purpose. Even if challenging questions are asked, the format makes it easy for a candidate to "respond" by reciting pre-scripted sloganeering talking points, with little likelihood of serious follow-up.

I did manage to catch one relatively serious policy argument. NJ's Governor Chris Christie intelligently and cogently defended his criticism of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's libertarian opposition to NSA data collection. I don't know if Senator Paul believes his view could realistically be made more acceptable to a broader non-libertarian audience, but if he dies he missed his chance to try to do so. Instead he resorted to sloganeering about collecting more information on terrorists and less on ordinary citizens. To his credit, Christie rebutted him, pointing out the factual absurdity of that statement.

One only wishes more candidates would point out the factual absurdities of so many other politicians' statements - such as the oft-repeated claim that somehow by rejecting the agreement with Iran somehow some "better deal" could be negotiated!

I missed Donald Trump's refusal to pledge to support the Republican nominee in the general election - implicitly keeping open the threatening possibility of an independent, 3rd-party bid. My guess is that that is precisely what many Republicans fear - especially Jeb Bush who, after all, his family memories of how Ross Perot's candidacy helped elect Bill Clinton over his father in 1992. I have no clue, of course, whether Trump will want to run on his own. It seems fair to suggest that the institutional success of the Republican party is not at the top of his personal priorities. And his history of past positions and previous campaign contributions does not suggest that the likelihood of facilitating a Democratic win with an independent candidacy would necessarily trouble him all that much. Who really knows? I guess time will tell. Keeping us guessing about what he will do is, presumably, a part of the media appeal

But I did get to see his response to the question about his purportedly offensive way of speaking about women. His answer was less a defense of his language than it was a clarion call against "political correctness" - a stance more likely to resonate with many who might personally avoid such offensive language but also feel committed to the larger issue of defending freedom of speech. The problem with Trump's response, at least as I heard it, however, was that it suggested a certain temperament which may be inconsistent with the more deliberate and "diplomatic" use of language which we generally expect in those with positions of major responsibility. The audience last night may not have been looking for gravitas and may even disparage gravitas or at least regard it as over-rated, but it is far from certain that the national electorate as a whole will want to do the same in November 2016.

As they are expected to do, pundits will presumably pick winners and losers. they may well be right. What does it say about our electoral process that we fully expect the field to be winnowed well before even the first primary or caucus votes is cast? Ultimately, whatever these sloganeering "debate" performances may say about our electoral process, it says little that may be encouraging about the broader culture of debate that should be at the heart of democratic governance. We've come a long way as a nation from The Federalist Papers!

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