Friday, September 23, 2016

Debating the debates

Clinton and Trump (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Clinton and Trump (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Whether looking for some reason, any reason, to support one candidate over another, or just wanting to watch high-stakes political mud wrestling, millions of Americans will tune in Monday night to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in the first of three presidential debates.

In this tumultuous and divisive election cycle where even the usually sleepy primary debates garnered record ratings, the first head-to-head matchup between the Democratic and Republican nominees is expected to be among the most watched television events of the year.

Now, as the race tightens between Clinton and Trump and many would-be voters remain undecided or unenthusiastic about both candidates, Harvard analysts say that while there is some truth to criticism that the debates are more “show” than “business” in this era of endless social media and nonstop campaigning, there is still much to glean from seeing candidates sparring under a white-hot spotlight. . . .


All sizzle and no steak

The debates may have started out as a simple way for voters to learn about candidates and their views on issues, but the ubiquity of social media and the press’s emphasis on spectacle and confrontation have diluted their civic value, argue some at Harvard Law School (HLS).

“In my view, they’ve gotten morphed into less about the candidates’ actual substantive views on an issue, and it’s turned into a slugfest and who can have the sound bite for the next morning. And that just seems to me to be counter to helping informed citizens in a democracy make an educated choice about who they might select for their leader,” said Robert Bordone, Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program at HLS.

“I think most viewers expect to see sound bites and fights, and that sort of expectation sets up the debates. It’s almost like the incentives to have a healthy dialogue between the two, with a debate on issues, are not there,” said lecturerHeather Kulp, who has co-written with Bordone about the need to overhaul the way presidential debates are run. “I think we underestimate what people would be interested in seeing.”

If Clinton and Trump abandoned the artifice of podiums and sat together on a couch and had a conversation rather than a war of words, perhaps their substantive views and ideas would be better elucidated, she said. “That’s going to be a lot more useful for the electorate than, ‘Well, Donald Trump’s a racist’; ‘No, Hillary Clinton’s a racist.’”

Social science research shows that deep distrust of political leaders often leads to a similar distrust of their supporters, even if they’re neighbors or friends. With two polarizing candidates in Clinton and Trump, it’s a dynamic that’s causing social and political harm, even here on campus, Kulp and Bordone say.

Partisanship “infects everybody to the point where we can’t even have conversations about issues of difference anymore with each other. We really avoid it, and how much does that hurt democracy?” said Kulp.

“So it’s not just the debates at a national level that hurt democracy. I think that is indeed a symptom of the fact that we can’t and don’t want to talk about difference anymore because we feel like we don’t have the capacity, we don’t have the words, because we see difference as a place where we can be fighting one another rather than actually having an interesting and helpful discussion with one another about those differences.”

Bordone and Kulp suggest candidates would be better off sitting together at a table and answering inquiries posed by a handful of questioners, similar to a group job interview. The questioners could be journalists knowledgeable on a host of topics or perhaps a pool of citizens who discuss the practical effects of legislation or policy positions. For example, a nurse, a home health care worker, a pediatrician, a professor, and a doctor who works with immigrants could talk about the Affordable Care Act and their ability to give care and ask candidates to tell them what needs to be fixed and how they’ll do it.

“Since one of the skills [as president] is that you have to work with people from a lot of different perspectives, including people who represent an entirely different political spectrum than you do, so how do you work with those people? Remove the audience, have one or two interviewers, and have the candidates engage in a project together or engage in a conversation together about issues that will really draw out what some of their skills, talents, abilities are to work with someone from a different political [vantage point],” said Kulp.

This fall, Bordone is leading a new reading group to teach HLS students, many of whom will go into politics or hold leadership positions later, how to talk about politically charged issues and negotiate differences.

“Leadership is not simply giving an eloquent speech or having a good, substantive policy proposal, or being the smartest woman or guy in the room. It’s figuring out how to talk with people of different views, how to listen to those people, and how to find some common ground to do something with them even when we disagree,” he said.

“In our teaching and our pedagogy, we’re really thinking about how do we equip and build and encourage skills where people can have conversations with each other across lines of difference?” said Kulp. “One of the challenges right now, so many of our students feel like, ‘What’s the point, why bother?’ There is no common ground. All they see is models of people in their own corner, reinforcing their own views, and preparing to fight the other. So we have to give them opportunities to experience reasons why it matters for themselves and their lives and for their country and their community.”

By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Staff Writer. Read the full article at the Harvard Gazette.