Who will win the debate? No one. No one will win, because it will be terrible. Political debates are always the worst. And I say this as someone who loves debate. I always want debates to be like the debate episode of the West Wing. (It was a simpler time.) But that’s not how they are. What is going wrong?
If ever there was ever a debate that might have been like the West Wing, it was Clinton vs. Trump. Clinton was highly qualified, incredibly prepared, and extremely competent. Trump was…not. And yet, debates didn’t move the dial for Clinton.
There’s a longstanding debate among debate people about whether sometimes the judges are just wrong. I’m on the side that it’s fine to blame the judges – but then maybe that’s because I lost my share? (Or at least, the judges voted against me, which is note the same as losing.) Anyway, I do think sexism is part of the story, but I think the story is more complicated than just sexism against Clinton.
In the last few days lots of people have been posting debate advice. I want to get in on this before it’s too late. Here are seven guidelines.
1. It’s hard to gain ground; it’s easier to lose ground.
For the most part nobody cares about debate. So as long as you don’t do anything dramatic, you can play for a draw. If you do shake things up, that’s taking a risk. Once as a speechwriter in high school I lost a race for Boy’s State Governor, when victory was otherwise a good bet, by going for something interesting. (Yes, I called myself a speechwriter in high school.)
2. Be charitable. It’s a mistake to try to make your opponent’s position look as bad as possible.
A very successful competitive debater once told me that the biggest mistake novices make is trying to argue that everything their opponent says is wrong. For some reason it’s very tempting to think the right play is to make the opposing side look as weak as possible. But this intuition is exactly backwards. You should try to make your opponent’s position look as strong as possible. This makes you look better. If the opposing argument is so bad, why does it look like a draw from the outside (see rule 1)? When you make your opponent’s points look good, it makes you seem like you’ve considered all the angles.
3. Facts are boring.
Lots of people on the internet are saying this so I won’t make heavy weather of it, but the studies are in. You can’t get someone to believe the facts by telling them the facts. That is not a winner. Once as a speechwriter in high school I lost an election for student body president by thinking it was a good idea to make it about “the issues.” To my knowledge, I may be only political consultant in the actual world who has literally never won anything. Good thing I got a philosophy job!
4. Stories have to be interesting.
Politicians tell the worst stories. Just the worst. “Lemme tell you about my friend, First Name. First Name is a decent, hard-working American. But because of policies like the one Opponent favors, First Name is having a rough time…” This is insulting to everyone. More importantly, it’s a terrible story. Anyone could have predicted everything what happens in advance. For a story to be compelling, something unexpected must happen.
I know it doesn’t sound like I’m giving debate advice, but I am. If you make the story didactic, it becomes a way of trying push someone around with the facts. People hate that. This isn’t just folk wisdom. Pushing people with facts does nothing, or maybe even provokes a backlash. Most of us hate the experience of someone trying to persuade us, because it literally feels like a threat our autonomy. On the other hand, when we hear a story we can relate to, we don’t feel threatened. Here is the crucial point: we are more likely to be persuaded when nobody is trying to push our beliefs around.
You know who told good stories? Jesus. The reason they were compelling is that it was genuinely hard to figure out what he wanted people to get out of them. As theologians like John Dominic Crossan and Amy-Jill Levine have pointed out, Jesus was more provoking people to consider something than trying to get them to believe anything in particular. Imagine if Jesus had said, “I have a friend who was a good, hard-working guy, but then the Romans came round with these policies…” Nobody cares.
5. You have to think about what your opponent will say back to what you say.
This is so obvious I don’t know why I’m writing it. But for some reason people are tempted to think about their opponent’s position, not what their opponent will say back when they’ve finished talking. That’s a mistake.
6. It is very difficult to land pre-planned, contrived jokes.
Antithesis: it is remarkably easy to land a joke that could not have been written in advance.
7. Only attack someone if the audience will think they have it coming.
It doesn’t matter how many unjust deaths your opponent is responsible for; the audience will only take your side in a fight if they have just witnessed bad conduct for themselves. We all love to see someone who really deserves it get the receiving end of a verbal attack. But it’s hard to get someone to reveal that they deserve it.
If you have never seen it, Jon Stewart’s premeditated dismantling of Tucker Carlson on his own show is a masterclass in baiting someone to throw the first punch, then going all in. In less than three minutes Carlson finds himself on his heels in an argumentative terrain he hadn’t planned for or thought about. Jon Stewart gets him to reveal exactly the disposition for which Stewart wants to criticize him, and then doesn’t let up for the duration. It’s incredible to behold. As the leading youtube comment notes, you can witness Tucker’s “villain origin story.”
So much for rules. Now, advice. I like backseat quarterbacking as much as anybody.
The advice: It’s weird that a Republican President who used the executive branch to make a propaganda video for North Korea should be a difficult mark in a debate. But, here we are. Probably the smart money bet debating Trump is to recite boring Democratic talking points so your base can pretend like you “won,” and call it a night.
Say, though, that you wanted to try. In that case, consider trying to get Trump to say something vaguely disrespectful of the military or another conservative institution. This is apparently not that difficult in private. Start with praise. “It’s great that the President is against bombing people for no reason – so good job throwing out Bolton, etc.” Then suggest consensus. “But in our system it’s important that the president be willing to listen to people who know more.” It’s very unlikely to work, but might Trump be tempted to say he was right in one of his famous un-doings of military decisions? One could also try pushing to see if Trump will say more on opposing democratic outcomes of elections in America.
Of course, it’s all a long shot. The likely outcome is boring. May I recommend instead counterprograming with election episode of Gilmore Girls? It’s not that realistic, but at this point, who’s counting?