Debates and Elections

by Jonathan Bernstein

I see that the British elections are emulating those of us over here in the colonies by holding debates between the candidates for Prime Minister as the centerpiece (centrepiece?) of their campaign, and my fellow guest-blogger Alex Massie is upset about it for all sorts of good reasons (Presidentialism is as good a reason as any, in my opinion).  But he also doesn't like the format:

There will be no cheering from the cheap seats, no back and forth, no direct interrogation of the other candidates, nothing but the dreary recitation of policy positions so tired and familiar and hackneyed that we're all more than sick of them already. No wonder they're likely (one could be wrong about this) to prove a massive, crushing's hardly likely that there will be any substantive revelations, nor any interesting insight into how they actually think or approach problems or see the world.

What would he like to see?  A real debate.

Well, sure.  Who wouldn't want to see, as Massie suggests, "John McCain propose the motion That this House Thinks Brutus Was an Honourable Man or Gordon Brown defending the idea that This House Would Rather Be Keynes than Hayek."  It would be entertaining.  No question.  But I don't think it has much to do with what elections are about.  In fact, I think such complaints about debates reveal a mistakenly goo-goo version about how elections "should" work that's pretty widespread in America, and perhaps the Brits have imported it as well.  If so -- too bad.

Let me explain.  How do voters make decisions in an election?  The goo-goo model says that ideally, one would learn "the issues" thoroughly, and then carefully compare the policies of Candidate One against the policies of Candidate Two.  One set of policies is, in this conception of things, right.  The other is wrong.  The job of the electorate should be to figure out which candidate has better policies, and elect that person.  Debates are good if they become a clash of ideas, and the winner should be the one with better ideas, better policies.  In that world of pure ideas, as Massie quotes Mr. Eugenides as saying:

In the debating I know, it's usually the quality of a team's arguments that wins the day, not their style. Beyond a certain level of competence, everyone in the final of the Oxford Union intervarsity (say) is assumed to be confident, quick on their feet, at ease in front of an audience.

Sure, delivery matters, but when it comes to deciding who has won, the main focus of judges' discussions is the debaters' content. What did he say? Did he give any evidence for that claim? Did he explain that clearly, and was I convinced? These are the things that "real" debating hinges on, more often than not.

Yes -- but they are not the things that real elections hinge on.  Voters are not debate judges, nor should they be.  Instead, voters are citizens with preferences and interests, and elections are about matching those preferences and interests with the proper set of candidates.  Yes, those preferences may change as a result of campaigning, and those preferences might be about public policy issues.  But often they're not, and there's nothing wrong with that.  One preference might simply be to punish the incumbent party because the economy stinks.  Another might be for some form of descriptive representation, as when an immigrant population seeks to have one of their own elected to Congress from the local district.  Or, it may come down to group interests, whether for economic or social benefits, as when factory workers support the candidate endorsed by unions or an abortion opponent supports a candidate endorsed by pro-life organizations.  All of these are perfectly good reasons in a democracy for someone to vote for one candidate or the other.  Debates can help inattentive voters match themselves up with the "correct" candidate for their preferences and interests, but that's about all.

Well, not entirely.  Debates also force candidates to make promises, and that's an important part of representation.  Of course, because campaigns (especially in the US) are long, often the promises made by candidates at high-profile events such as debates will sound to close observers as merely repeating talking points, but that's OK; the fact of repeating those particular talking points when everyone is paying attention makes those promises more important to whichever candidate takes office.  So that's an important and proper part of high-profile debates, although it doesn't have much to do with which candidate "wins" the debate."

"Real" debates would do no better job of filling those functions, and might well do a much worse job.  They would be more entertaining to those of us who watch campaigns very closely, but that's not, alas, the audience.