How Debates Make Us Dumber

Let the finger-pointing begin!

The people have had their bread—now it’s time for their circus.

1.      Their standard for excellence.

The first way debates make us dumber is by forcing us to accept a standard for excellence that is utterly irrelevant to public policy, knowledge, or virtue. Debate success is the one-liner. Debate failure is the gaffe. In a debate, there’s no time for extended analysis or complex argumentation. Every debate consists of argument-by-slogan, supplemented by clever anecdotes and “zingers” to “crush” an opponent. Slogans, anecdotes, jokes, and zingers do not constitute high-level discourse, but they make great television for the politically and economically-illiterate masses who watch presidential debates.

These standards, as foolish as they are, inevitably get adopted by the viewer, even by people who know better. As a Gary Johnson “fan,” I couldn’t help but get excited when he successfully executed a joke in a GOP primary debate about his dogs creating more shovel-ready dogs than the president. I had internalized the debate’s standard for excellence, and I knew it would get him attention, even if it was the frivolous sort of tabloid attention that the media showers on other entertainers and celebrities.

This standard demands more inane public discourse. “Entertain us!” is the mob’s only cry. The TV debate mocks what amount to life-or-death issues. There’s a reason these contests start with high-action music, and people break out popcorn and beer for them—everyone knows that by their very nature, debates are not to be taken seriously. “Political circus” is damn right.

2.      Their basic premise

Debates also make us dumber by forcing us to buy into the basic premise—that every problem is solvable in two minutes or less. The time constraint on debates leaves no room for nuance or hedging. “He’s got to speak shorter,” Obama adviser David Axelrod recommended recently. And so he does. “I will create a million manufacturing jobs,” the president assures us. “I will create 25 million jobs,” Mitt Romney declares. What are the margins for error on these claims? What methods were used to discover them? We’ll never know.

Paul Ryan was right when he said recently that it would take him “too long to go through all of the math” to explain his tax plan in a television interview. Regardless of their underlying accuracy, numbers, math, and most of all, thinking don’t play well on television. All the humility of scientific conferences is destroyed in a modern political debate where the moderator is prone to ask, “Please explain how you will fix the economy in 60 seconds or less.”

This, of course, is the secondary premise—that every problem is solvable in 2 minutes by the president. Debates inflate presidential importance beyond all reason. The two candidates become like Greek gods dueling over the fate of humanity, when in reality they are like two crooks squabbling over how to divide their spoils. Presidential inflation reaches new heights with each successive debate, and today, when the moderator demands to know how they will “rule the nation,” it’s no exaggeration to say that debates play kingmaker.

3.      Their “important” content 

Debates make us dumber by forcing us to focus solely on (perceived) disagreements. The flipside is that debates vanquish all the areas of convergence, which makes the vast majority of issues simply disappear. Given the fact that the two parties fundamentally agree on almost everything, these invisible issues are naturally the most important—the fundamentals and principles that underlie our system. From welfare to warfare, from the war on drugs to the war on immigrants, from assassinations to warrantless wiretapping, the two candidates agree on it all.

But you won’t notice this basic unanimity if you watch the debates. Debates by their nature highlight differences, not similarities, so you should expect Twitter and Facebook will alight with partisan accusations of Obama’s socialism and Romney’s fascism, most of which may not even be wrong. They just miss the bigger picture. As I noted in a recent Huffington Post piece, even in hotly-debated areas like immigration, “at the practical, rather than the rhetorical, level, the two candidates are virtually indistinguishable.”

Debates do not inform the masses—they distract them. Although libertarians know this better than most, debates suck us into these petty squabbles. They force us to engage the fraudulent and respect the frivolous. These engagements, I would argue, not only do not add value to others’ lives or our own, but they actually gravely injure our ability to place issues in their proper context. Circuses, especially the political kind, are diversions—it’s time we ignore this distraction lest it cloud our minds with its inanities.

4.      Their false choice*

The message of a debate is, “Here are your options. Now choose!”* Debates make us dumber by encouraging us to root for a candidate. Even if you believe that you have equally proportioned disgust for each, debates can often tilt the meter of revulsion one way more than the other. This process is rarely rational, but we often convince ourselves that it is. In this way, we replace our dispassionate dismissal of both these frauds with an irrational fear of one over the other.

In tonight’s debate, you will not learn of the great issues of the day. Those, I can assure you, will not be addressed, and even if they were, the shallow slogan with which they would be dismissed will only grant the illusion that they are not so great a problem after all. Nor will you even learn anything about the candidates or how they will “rule us.” You will just discover the better entertainer, the greater fraud, and perhaps even the next fancy of the democratic mob.

Related: Why Serious TV Debates Are Impossible

David Bier

David Bier is an immigration policy expert in Washington, DC, and senior editor of The Skeptical Libertarian. He specializes in immigration and environmental policy, focusing on the value of human beings as the ultimate resource.