The case against campaign debates

I was pretty jazzed all day yesterday for the first debate of the Long Campaign.

I knew better than to be excited, but still I was – like a football fan on Super Bowl Sunday, I hoped that despite all the letdowns in the past, maybe this one would be good.

But these ritualized events, which have come to be considered so pivotal to the success or failure of campaigns, are now so thoroughly scripted and focus-group-tested and rehearsed and strategized that every moment, every utterance, every careful hand gesture and dead-eyed practiced grin feels nakedly manipulative.

And so it was last night. There were a few moments of actual substance – for instance, Elizabeth May pressed Thomas Mulcair relentlessly on the NDP’s position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, pointing out the inconsistencies in his position (he had earlier complained that the process for deciding on whether to proceed with the pipeline was fundamentally flawed, but then took the stance that the government should wait and see the results of that process before making a decision). But for the most part, the spectacle consisted of Harper, Mulcair, and Trudeau trying to define themselves along the lines their respective parties’ brain trusts think they ought to be defined, and May fighting tooth and nail to get a word in edgewise.

I mean, look at this – here’s a transcript of every time May was cut off in the two-hour debate (h/t fycanadianpolitics):

Elizabeth May:   But in terms —

Elizabeth May:   If I can just get to something —

Elizabeth May:   But there’s —

Elizabeth May:   If I could just —

Elizabeth May:   Well, that was my —

Elizabeth May:  But the Canada-Korea deal, which —

Elizabeth May:  But Mr. Prime Minister, in all —

Elizabeth May:  But – but —

Elizabeth May:    No. No.

Elizabeth May:   No.

Elizabeth May:   Mr. – but Mr. Prime —

Elizabeth May:  And Canadians —

Elizabeth May:   — and British Columbians —

Elizabeth May:   Can I —

Elizabeth May:   Can —

Elizabeth May:  No.

Elizabeth May:  So you’re prepared —

Elizabeth May:  Mr. —

Elizabeth May:  But —

Elizabeth May:  But there’s been something the Prime Minister said —

Elizabeth May:  Mr. – Mr. Prime Minister —

Elizabeth May:   It’s a big disappointment —

Elizabeth May:   Homeless people.

Elizabeth May:  Electoral —

Elizabeth May:   There is no —

Elizabeth May:      — expert oversight —

Elizabeth May:    — there is no expert oversight —

Roughly one-third of the time she opened her mouth to speak, she was cut off immediately. There were also several times in the debate, not included here, when she was able to get a full sentence in and was then cut off.  And yes, it’s a political debate, and yes, there was a lot of cross-talk and interrupting – but none of the other party leaders had to endure this kind of shit. And that’s institutional sexism for you – it’s something female party leaders have long complained about:

Kim Campbell:… If I wanted to respond to an attack — and I was to be the recipient of the lion’s share of the attacks — I ran the risk of appearing too aggressive, and aggressiveness is seen as less attractive coming from a woman.

[Audrey] McLaughlin: When I was in the major debates, there were five parties. That was a tough one. There you even had less time. It’s the fine balance between being courteous and being shut out. For a woman, it’s no different than the business world…

And because these debates are more about style than substance, more about being perceived as states(wo)manlike than being acknowledged as correct, poor Elizabeth May had to fight and fight for a chance to be heard – and in that whole transcript I didn’t find one instance of her actually cutting off somebody else, no matter how assertive she was being. A few times, the moderator had to cut in just to give her a chance to speak.

Fully one-quarter of the debate focussed on the question of democracy, as in, What’s wrong with our democracy? This by itself should have served as a scathing indictment of the current government, which has done more to undermine democratic norms and traditions than any other in living memory – but instead it turned into a ridiculous sideshow on the Clarity Act and the boogeyman issue of Quebec separatism, with Mulcair incessantly needling Trudeau while Harper leaned back and watched the minutes tick by.

May is brainy and wonky and thinks fast and speaks in whole sentences. She doesn’t whinge; she is a remarkably fluid polemicist…

She did a neat job of gutting Harper’s rote bragging about Canada’s globally admired economy…

Whether May’s data were any more honestly presented than Harper’s is beside the point. Both of them are adepts. It would probably have been more interesting if the other two weren’t there to interrupt.

I also agreed with her more often than I did with any of the other leaders. Is that a coincidence? Hardly. The Sun’s analysis of the debate managed to ignore May’s presence there entirely – Corey Larocque literally didn’t mention once that she was on-stage. The Sun was also far harder on Justin Trudeau than any other account I read – which, again, is hard to see as a coincidence.

In other words, people see what they want to see. They agree with the people they were already inclined to agree with, and also perceive them as doing well.

I’ve identified a mechanism for this seeming confirmation bias – it’s just a hypothesis, mind you, but I think it’s sound. Here’s how it goes:

In the debate, we are presented with a barrage of positions, backed up with hastily-uttered statistics and facts. Say the subject is, I don’t know, economic growth. That’s a pretty fuzzy one to begin with. So all the party leaders are making their cases – Harper says he’s been a responsible and effective leader on the economy, but May says he’s cherry-picking his data and misrepresenting the results. How do we in the audience interpret these competing claims?

Well, one thing we don’t do is analyze them on the basis of facts. Everybody is stating numbers and figures and facts that they claim support their case, and we don’t have the capacity to sift through these in real time, check their veracity, analyze them, and make an informed decision on the basis of a deep impartial study of the issue.

Instead, we make a decision on the basis of what feels right.

That feeling could be based on a few things. If it’s a topic about which we’re well-informed (or feel like we are), then we’re probably going to go with the person whose position on the issue is closest to ours – in my case here, I went with Elizabeth May, despite the fact that I didn’t know exactly what she was talking about in terms of Harper’s selective statistics, because her analysis was consistent with my beliefs and my experience in wading through Harper’s bullshit.

For folks who aren’t well-informed on a particular subject, however, there’s precious little to go on. The asserted facts seem to contradict each other, and neither leader has the time (nor the inclination) to slow things down and explain the whole issue in detail. We never get to hear all about a topic – it’s just gestured at, postured around, and used as a bludgeon to attack people. So for the poorly-informed (“low-information voters”, the politicos call them), any kind of factual basis for interpreting competing claims is out of the question.

That only leaves a few things left to go by. One is the viewer’s personal impressions of the leaders. Are they likeable? Do they seem competent? Does their body language read as trustworthy? Do they seem like you could drink a beer with them and have a good time?

The other is specific word choices. Even if you’re not up on Senate reform, when you hear Trudeau accuse Harper of “breaking a solemn promise”, you know that shit is serious. When Mulcair (or Harper or Trudeau) defends his economic plan, and he trots out the tired old lines about championing the cause of the middle class, it’ll probably resonate with you, because as many as 60% of Canadians identify as middle class, including some pretty wealthy people. These word choices have been analyzed to death by pollsters and political scientists, and at least half of what the major party leaders said was couched in loaded terms to produce specific emotional reactions in the audience.

I hasten to point out that body language and focus-tested word choices are goddamn stupid reasons to support a politician or a party.

But this is exactly the type of decision-making that campaign debates encourage. If you haven’t got a damn clue what the Clarity Act is, or what the hell Mulcair is going on about asking Trudeau over and over what his number is, the only way you’re going to be able to interpret that much-talked-about exchange between the two of them and decide who came out the winner is on the basis of relatively inconsequential things like their tones and their facial expressions and their body language and the emotionally heated and politically loaded vocabulary that they use to discuss what really is a pretty irrelevant issue.

So that’s my knock against debates. For the well-informed, the paucity of detailed discussion and the torrent of questionable statistics and facts makes it impossible to be swayed by evidence, leading to a gravitation towards the arguments which resonate most, i.e., those which most closely align with the listener’s beliefs. For the poorly-informed, the whole spectacle is reduced to an exercise in pure manipulation – hence, for instance, Mulcair’s grandfatherly calm and ever-present grin, a (transparently obvious) effort to counter the widespread perception that he’s an angry guy.

If the only purpose of this whole exercise is the pseudopsychological manipulation of low-information voters, then is it worth it?

This is a criticism that could be levelled against the whole electoral process as it now stands – if it’s ultimately a competition to see which party is the most effective propagandist, do we really want to keep doing it this way?

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