Why presidential primary debates make us dumber
Acton Institute Powerblog

Why presidential primary debates make us dumber

The presidential primary debates kicked off last night in Miami as 10 Democratic candidates made their appeal to the American people. Tonight, 10 more(!) will take the stage for a two-hour exchange of sound bites.

If you watched any of the debates (or heard about them after) and have any opinion about political or social issues you will have come to the conclusion that at least one (if not most or all) of the candidates were wrong about the facts.

It reminded my of this excellent post seven years ago when my colleague Dylan Pahman wrote about the 2012 presidential debates and how both candidates misrepresents facts:

Wishing to be charitable, I might characterize the politicians vying for our nation’s highest offices as “repeatedly mistaken,” but somewhere along the line someone on both sides is simply choosing to overlook the facts, unless we are to believe that both our president and his challenger have hired utterly incompetent researchers to support their campaigns—hardly a concession that instills me with much confidence in either of them.

Had Dylan not included this sentence I likely would have whole-heartedly agreed with his diagnosis (it doesn’t take much to convince me that political candidate are less than honest). But that line forced me to do some soul-searching since I was a researcher for two different presidential candidates during two different primary seasons.

While it might be the case that I should be included among the “utterly incompetent researchers,” I made an honest effort when preparing debate prep materials to provide my candidates with accurate and wholly truthful information. The problem is that what constitutes “accurate and wholly truthful information” is far from obvious. Some facts are straightforward. When I included data such as “the economy grew by X percent in quarter Y,” I had sufficient references to back up the claim. But other assertions, particularly about a candidate’s prior statements or political record, required relevant context in order to be established as truly “factual.”

For instance, I might be asked to research a claim that Governor Z “went along with seven tax increases during his tenure.” My finding might be that his state’s legislature (controlled by the rival party) had raised the sales tax seven times for a total of a penny and the governor had refused to veto the increases. Saying he “went along with seven tax increases” is technically factual. But it’s also misleading. I know the claim could be misconstrued to mean something much different. My candidate knows it too. And Governor Z is certainly aware of how we are misrepresenting his record by presenting an indisputable “fact.”

The problem with such facts is that they are devoid of context. It is similar to how we treat daily news. In the October 1991 issue of First Things, C. John Sommerville explained “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.

In the book based on the article, Sommerville points out:

The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.

Substitute the terms “news business” for “political debate” and Sommerville’s claim is equally applicable and undeniably accurate. The focus of political debates is not to present information in a context that allows us to make an informed decision but rather to get us to change our opinion about a candidate or policy.

This is why presidential debates are designed, albeit unintentionally, to make us dumber. Candidates are expected to take maddeningly complex subjects, fairly present their opponent’s position, and explain how their position differs—all in two minutes or less. While such a task is clearly impossible, to even make an attempt requires stripping all relevant context from consideration. A “low-information voter”—who by definition is already unaware of the relevant political context—that watches a debate comes away, as Dylan noted, with less factual information than they started with. They are, in a very literal sense, made dumber by watching the debate. (This is true even for those who are closely following the political horserace, as we can see on Twitter during and after the debates.)

That is why Dylan’s proposal to have candidates be men and women of integrity is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for diminishing the “supply of pandering statistics and misleading claims.” If candidates are forced to engage in forums in which the ability to present statistics and claims in their proper context is not even an option, then even a person of integrity will mislead voters.

I’m pessimistic that any meaningful change will occur in political discourse, and I completely agree with Dylan that the “market for cheap and mangled ‘facts’ appears to be too strong for the time being.” It’s even truer today than it was in 2012 since we now have nationalist-populist outlets joining liberal and conservative media in mangling the facts.

The market for reliable, contextual political information is now all but non-existent. What we buy is cheap entertainment, pseudo-events that exist for the sole reason that they allow us to have a debate about which candidate “won.” (If you are debating today about which candidate “won” the most recent debate you are part of the problem.)

Until the broad populace is ready for substantive political discussion (NB: we never will ), we’ll continue to be made dumber by these so-called presidential “debates.” And until we smarten up and find a better way of evaluating our potential presidents, our nation will continue to be led by some of the most incompetent people in America.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).