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Are Politicians Obligated to Debate?

photo of empty debate stage

In the leadup to the provincial election in Ontario, many members of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party have been avoiding the debates taking place in their respective ridings. In fact, 22 out of 34 Conservatives have recently failed to show up to debates in which members of their rival parties were participating, a number that greatly exceeds the absences from all other parties combined. When asked to comment on the situation, a campaign official speaking on behalf of the Conservatives stated that the party’s mandate was to have each candidate “carefully assess the value” of participating in a debate in order to “limit the risk” of doing so. He also stated that debates are of “low value” and a candidate’s time can be better used in other ways.

Debates ahead of elections are common in democracies around the world. So, too, are instances of politicians avoiding them. For example, in the run-up to the recent presidential election in the Philippines, candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. participated in only one out of four scheduled debates; when asked to explain his absence, he cited the desire to keep his campaign “positive” (although many of his critics speculated that his failure to attend the debates was motivated by a desire to avoid discussing his family’s history). The strategy seems to have paid off, as he is presumed to have won the election.

Some who disapprove of Conservative Party candidates skipping debates in Canada have called the move “anti-democratic”; in the Philippines, Marcos’ opponent Leni Robredo said that participating in debates is something that candidates “owe…to the people and to our country.”

Is this right? Do politicians have any specific obligation to participate in debates? And if so, what kind of obligation?

There is one sense in which political candidates like those mentioned above are not obligated to participate in debates, given that not participating does not preclude one from running. We might think that there is a different kind of obligation involved, though, one associated with “playing fair” or maybe “being a good sport”; such norms, however, have rarely held much water in the world of politics. Of course, one risks losing face in front of one’s constituents by failing to appear for debates, but if a politician can make up that loss in other campaign activities, or if one’s target constituency doesn’t really care about the outcomes of political debates anyway, then it might be more prudent to skip debates altogether, especially given the risk of hurting one’s campaign by getting caught off-guard by a question or saying something dumb.

So we might think that politicians who refuse to attend debates are not violating any explicit electoral processes, or being imprudent, but are instead lazy, or cowards (or both). But this is perhaps a far cry from the accusations above of being “anti-democratic.”

Indeed, there does seem to be something more egregious about avoiding political debates, namely that doing so undercuts informed citizenship, something that is a necessary condition for a well-functioning democracy.

To defend this kind of argument we need to consider what we mean by “informed” and “well-functioning.” But in general, the claim is this: if those in positions of political power are meant to be reflective of, and act in service to, the will of the people, broadly construed, then those people need to be informed about what candidates’ positions are on important issues.

That’s glossing over a lot of nuances, of course. And it’s not as if every voter needs to be extremely knowledgeable about all the details of every candidate’s respective platform, or stance on every policy issue, in order to be well-informed. Regardless, the loose argument is that better-informed voters will tend to make better voting choices, and the responsibility to inform citizens lies not just with said citizens, but with the politicians, as well. Political debates are, arguably, a significant source of information about candidates. Failing to participate in such debates thus prevents voters from getting important information they need to be well-informed. We can then see why one might think that avoiding political debates is anti-democratic, as doing so is antithetical to the democratic process one is participating in.

One might think, though, that there are surely other ways in which one can become well-informed about the candidates in an election – one could, say, look up relevant information online.

Doesn’t such readily available information make political debates more or less obsolete, at least in terms of their ability to inform the public?

No, for a few reasons. First, reading statements online does not give one the same kind of information that might come up at a debate, as there are no opportunities for rebuttals or follow-up questions. Second, one does not get to compare candidates in the same way when simply reading information online. Finally, people are not great at actively seeking out information about candidates who are members of parties one does not already endorse. It seems less likely that one would change one’s mind when doing self-directed research, in comparison to a debate.

Here is the kind of being-well-informed that seems especially crucial for a well-functioning democracy: not just knowledge about what one’s favorite candidate is all about, filtered through one’s preferred news outlet or website, but information about how different candidates compare, as well as information about other choices one may not have considered. More than just custom or nuisance, debates serve an important function of helping to inform the voting public, and failing to engage in them violates obligations central to democracy.

Trump, Berlusconi, and Double Standards on Tough Questions

two photographs: 1 of Donald Trump and the other of Silvio Berlusconi speaking at podiums

Since the election of Donald Trump, political experts have launched themselves into a comparison with his Italian version: Silvio Berlusconi. From his billionaire status to his physical height, the similarities between the two have been carefully examined in the hopes that the US could learn from Italy what to expect from the Trump administration. The comparisons made sense: Berlusconi and Trump indeed share many common traits. Their treatment of women and people of color, their financial privilege, their troubles with the law, their approach to tax evasion (as something to be flaunted instead of ashamed of), and their dismissal of journalism. Yet perhaps because the Trump administration created issues that a comparison with Berlusconi could not have helped solve, the similarities fell into silence. Until now.

On Thursday, just hours before his presidential debate with Joe Biden in Nashville, Trump released footage from his interview on CBS’s “60 minutes.” The video showed the president abruptly leaving the interview, calling the correspondent’s approach “no way to talk.” The interviewer, Lesley Stahl, is shown doing the job that a journalist should be doing, and doing it well: she asked challenging questions, questions that any politician would prefer not to answer, and she asked persistently, leaving no room for presidential monologues. The comparison with Berlusconi is unavoidable. In 2006, while Berlusconi was Presidente del Consiglio (the Italian version of Prime Minister), he was invited to be interviewed in “In Mezz’Ora” (“In Half an Hour”), a show conducted by the journalist Lucia Annunziata. Known for her professional and serious temperament, Annunziata kept asking pressing questions to Berlusconi, who eventually decided to leave the interview halfway through. While shaking her hand, Berlusconi scolded Annunziata for her “unfair treatment,” hinting at her alleged leftist bias. The similarities with Trump are particularly striking. Both time-constrained interviews (60 minutes in Trump’s case and 30 minutes in Berlusconi’s case) feature women interviewers relentlessly pressing for an answer that is concise and to the point.

Trump and Berlusconi’s reaction to their interviews also share similarities. In both, they complain about having been unfairly treated, hinting at the seemingly aggressive temperament of the interviewer who did not give them the opportunity to respond. In truth, both interviewers did give them time to reply, but not in the way Trump and Berlusconi are perhaps used to: by responding with overly long speeches about their achievements and ultimately avoiding the question.

What should we make of this comparison? I think the lesson to draw here is a double standard: both Trump and Berlusconi have a hard time maintaining poise in challenging interviews. Granted, interviews can feel like a difficult battle, a back-and-forth that hardly leaves time to breathe, but that rhythm is exactly what is so particular to journalistic style. Interviews are not – and should not – provide a sympathetic atmosphere where candidates can let themselves indulge in long responses that tout the importance of their qualities. Rather, they are a moment of scrutiny where one’s articulate responses are tested. Both Trump and Berlusconi fail the test: they show that they do not know how to deal with journalists (a remark Annunziata makes when leaving the show after Berlusconi storms out). This kind of behavior also hints at the inability to take one’s own medicine.

In the first debate with Joe Biden, Trump relentlessly interrupted the former vice president, often talking over him, and was repeatedly scolded by Chris Wallace, the moderator. If that is an acceptable way of interacting during a debate, then it should be so when other interviewers occasionally interrupt him to obtain a clear answer. Yet, to Trump it isn’t. Right before leaving his interview, Trump chastised Stahl’s approach as “no way to talk.” Notice the double standard here: it is no way to talk when such behavior is directed at him, yet it is acceptable when directed at others. The double standard brings to the surface a somewhat incoherent behavior. And this incoherence is more of a logical problem, rather than a political one. A double standard is not a formal fallacy, that is, a poorly construed argument, but it highlights an inconsistency between words and actions. Trump’s behavior towards Biden during the first debate paints a relentless exchange, yet his verbal remarks about Stahl’s approach toward him tell a different story: they lead to the conclusion that Trump will not endure such tough treatment.

Do we have an obligation to being consistent? Deeming a practice as wrong and nevertheless performing it might make one vulnerable to charges of moral hypocrisy. While it might be difficult to be consistent, our politicians should strive to meet this challenge. Avoiding special treatment and refusing a double standard sends a positive message: one that embraces reciprocal treatment and suggests that those who represent us are not above us.

On Political Purity Tests

photograph of Trump at Catholic church

With the 2020 presidential election less than a year away, talk of “purity” tests for political candidates – so-called requirements, expectations, or “deal-breakers” for voters’ support – has become curiously common.

On the Democratic side, where more than a dozen contenders are still vying for their party’s nomination (and have begun to challenge each other more openly about their progressive bona fides), concerns about flexibility and eventual electability have led some figures to warn against holding impossibly high standards for the eventual Democratic standard-bearer. Just before Thanksgiving, at a question-and-answer session in California, Former President Barack Obama explained that “We will not win just by increasing the turnout of the people who already agree with us completely on everything – which is why I am always suspicious of purity tests during elections. Because, you know what, the country is complicated.” Instead of requiring a political candidate to perfectly match your ideals in every way, this position suggests a more pragmatic approach that allows for (at least some) ideological compromise.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have spent much of the last three years practicing precisely that sort of compromise, frequently (and sometimes even proudly) admitting that President Donald Trump is, in many ways, far from the conservative ideal in his personal life, but is, nevertheless, the most useful figure for accomplishing politically conservative goals. Despite long-popular rhetoric amongst Republicans about faith and family values, the children of the Moral Majority have committed themselves to defending a thrice-married philanderer because, for example, Trump’s ability to appoint conservative judges to federal positions outweighs his inability to name a book of the Bible. When Christianity Today, a leading magazine for Evangelical Christians, recently published an opinion piece arguing, in part, that Trump’s unapologetic immorality damages the credibility of his religious defenders, it was lambasted amongst the party faithful as proof that the periodical represents the “elitist liberal wing” of their denomination.

The question of purity indeed poses an interesting (potential) ethical dilemma: either you get your hands dirty to take what you want, or you find that your clean hands remain empty in the end – which is preferable?

In its crudest form, this dilemma is not unlike the classic “trolley problem,” where a person is tasked to choose whether it is better to act in a way that condemns one person to die or, instead, to refrain from action in a way that results in five deaths. Although the former requires bloodying your own hands by involving yourself in a causal chain resulting in the death of a person, it brings about a set of consequences which involves fewer deaths overall; the latter allows you to avoid direct responsibility, but results in a significantly less palatable end. Which of these options is the right one to choose?

Instead of circling debates around various ethical theories, Alexis Shotwell, professor of sociology, anthropology, and philosophy at Carleton University, offers a different solution altogether: rejecting the possibility of “purity” as an attainable quality, period. In her 2016 book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Shotwell argues that the perception of moral purity as a genuine goal is, in principle, illusory, so the sort of clean-cut options supposed by trolley-style dilemmas are simply unrealistic. Instead, our embeddedness in social contexts requires an amount of interdependency with others that will always, as a general rule, require ideological compromise to at least some degree. Given that everyone has slightly different desires, interests, and goals, “an ethical approach aiming for personal purity is inadequate,” and, ultimately, “impossible and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth.”

This sort of approach neither draws lines in the sand across which certain people are not welcome, nor does it try to give some ends-based excuse for allowing deplorable people into one’s inner circle: instead, it recognizes that – like it or not – we’re already all in this together. As Shotwell explains, the idea is rather that

“I’m going to work on this thing and I’m definitely going to make a mistake. I’m already part of a really messed up situation, so I’m not going to be able to personally bend the arc of the universe toward justice. But I might be able to work with other people so that all together we can do that.”

Perhaps the main way that someone can ethically fail on such a model is to reject trying to work together at all.

So, importantly, Shotwell’s approach does not license an individual to behave however they choose: the emphasis on collective and relational approaches to problem-solving (as not only pragmatic requirements, but as the logically prior element of moral exchanges altogether) means that moral agents are inextricably bound to certain moral expectations based on the communities in which we find ourselves – these relationships (more so than our individual intentions or the direct consequences of our own actions) ground our moral judgments – as well as our political choices. So, candidates who transgress these sorts of communal expectations for cooperative and mutual care can indeed still be held accountable, but in a manner notably more ecumenical than either the myopic purity tests of the Democrats or the sycophantic apologetics of the Republicans.

Although the outcome of the 2020 election cycle is still far from determined, one thing seems clear: it’s messy already and the chaos will only get worse. Rather than pretending that “the Right candidate will be Good” or that “the best candidate doesn’t actually have to be good,” Shotwell’s “politics of imperfection” suggests that everyone needs to hold each other accountable to work together in the project of creating a world for us all.

Campaign Donations, Caveat Emptor, and #RefundPete

photograph of Mayor Pete at an even flipping pork chops in Iowa Pork apron

The second week of December saw another unusual wrinkle in an already-complicated Democratic primary season: grassroots donors began demanding refunds for political contributions made to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Citing concerns about Buttigieg’s pursuit of high-dollar donors, defenses of corporate interests, and dismissive attitudes towards questions regarding these tactics, as well as specific revelations regarding his work at the management consulting group McKinsey and Company, some voters who had once considered Buttigieg an interesting newcomer to the national stage are changing their minds. Although the Buttigieg campaign has declined to release data on the number of refunds requested, the movement appears to be growing as the hashtag #RefundPete began trending online.

As it stands, presidential campaigns are only legally obligated to refund a campaign donation if that donation somehow violates legal requirements (such as if it exceeds the FEC’s contribution limits) – no provision requires refunds simply because donors have had a change of heart. However, might Buttigieg’s campaign have a moral obligation to dispense refunds? Or does the Latin warning “Caveat Emptor” – “let the buyer beware” – apply to political donations just as much as it might to property sales?

On the one hand, you might think that a political donation is simply a non-binding show of support – a flat contribution demonstrating a thin sort of sponsorship that does not commit either a donor or a candidate to anything further. Put differently, this view sees a campaign donation as simply a gift with no strings attached. Even though a voter might give money to one (or even multiple) campaigns, that would in no way indicate how the donor would end up voting at the ballot box and, conversely, the candidate can use that money at-will.

On the other hand, it might be that making a campaign contribution thereby initiates the donor into the candidate’s group of supporters, creating a net of (at least some) obligations between the donor and the candidate – such as the expectation that the candidate represent the will of the donors/supporters. On this view, a donation is more like a contract or a promise that a candidate must perpetually merit. Presumably, on this second, thicker view, if the candidate breaks the contract (perhaps by initially misrepresenting themselves or by changing their positions), then the donor could have grounds to demand repayment.

If these choices are right, then it would seem like the #RefundPete movement is assuming the second option to ground their reimbursement expectations: although someone may have contributed to Buttigieg when he was presenting himself as a progressive, small-town mayor looking for grassroots support, that same contributor could easily feel deceived when Buttigieg later adopts a more openly centrist position, chases elitist funding, and cavalierly ignores questions regarding that shift. Because of that perceived deception, former Buttigieg donors might think they are entitled to a refund.

However, it is the first option which seems like the most natural understanding of how campaign donations actually function. Given that there is a clear difference between contributing to a campaign and actively campaigning for a candidate (via rallying, door-knocking, sign-posting, or a myriad of other approaches), it’s not clear that a simple financial transaction (often done impersonally through an online payment portal) is able to automatically create the thick sorts of relational obligations between a candidate and his supporters required to ground a reimbursement request. That is to say, although campaign donors and campaign workers are both supporters of a candidate, they are not identical political agents (someone can easily be one without being the other). If former Buttigieg-donors also put in the effort to build relational ties with the Buttigieg campaign (thereby becoming Buttigieg-campaign-workers), then they might indeed have standing to expect some form of recompense for their wasted efforts (given what they now know); if those former donors are now simply regretting their choice to toss some “pocket change” at a candidate that they now don’t like, then it’s much less clear that they deserve the refunds they’re requesting. Indeed, this second scenario seems fairly familiar to any voter who has ever ended up dissatisfied with the results of representative democracy.

To be fair, it seems like much of the #RefundPete hashtag is motivated by the opportunity to make a political statement about Buttigieg’s campaign tactics, policy positions, and general demeanor: for example, the hashtag was sparked by a campaign worker for Elizabeth Warren and one of the inspirations of the #RefundPete hashtag had only donated $1 to help Buttigieg qualify for an early debate. Particularly in a race where grassroots support has become a defining wedge issue among Democratic candidates (as Bernie Sanders joked about in the December debate), such statements might be perfectly legitimate – but that’s a far cry from saying that the concept of a campaign donation refund is, in principle, legitimate.

TV Debates Warp Political Process

This post originally appeared in USA Today on July 29, 2015.

Political wonks and junkies breathlessly await the first televised “debate” of the primary season. But sensible voters will do something more productive on debate night. Taking a walk or going to a ballgame will be better than watching 10 overprepared GOP candidates try to upstage each other with verbal brickbats and one-liners.

Political debates have become nothing more than media events that do little to promote reasoned, in-depth discussion. Cable news channels stand in line to program them to promote their brand, get a ratings boost, showcase their talent, and insert themselves into a political brawl. Their producers make the events look like a cross between the Super Bowl and Dancing With the Stars, hardly a venue for thoughtful political dialogue.

Television is a medium of emotion, and as such, warps the process of selecting who is best suited to lead the nation. Candidates are advised by slick handlers to stick to simplistic catchphrases, and toss in a few zingers along the way. Television forces candidates to worry more about their on-screen image than about how to explain their policy for improving the economy. Any candidate who seriously tries to make debating points and explain the nuances of a complex matter will come off as boring and calculating.

Afterward, the media will immediately start declaring who “won,” as if winning a debate 15 months before Election Day will help the electorate decide who’s best suited to confront Islamic State terrorists. There is little transferability of television debating skill into international diplomacy, working with Congress, or any other presidential duty that matters.

The candidate who can make the most noise on debate night will be viewed as having advanced his candidacy, and the less showy but more sensible candidate will be dismissed. Remember, many pundits thought Newt Gingrich won the early GOP debates in 2012.

John Kennedy warned in 1959 that television would force politics into the realm of public relations and “gimmickry.” Televised debates are all of that. These concocted events will not be the stuff of Lincoln-Douglas. Our nation’s political process suffers as a result.