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And we have an external impact to this net benefit

Sufficient research-based preparation and debates focused on detailed points of disagreement are crucial to transforming political culture

Gutting (professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame) 13

(Gary, Feb 19, A Great Debate, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/a-great-debate/?emc=eta1)


This is the year of what should be a decisive debate on our country’s spending and debt. But our political “debates” seldom deserve the name. For the most part representatives of the rival parties exchange one-liners: “The rich can afford to pay more” is met by “Tax increases kill jobs.” Slightly more sophisticated discussions may cite historical precedents: “There were higher tax rates during the post-war boom” versus “Reagan’s tax cuts increased revenues.”

Such volleys still don’t even amount to arguments: they don’t put forward generally accepted premises that support a conclusion. Full-scale speeches by politicians are seldom much more than collections of such slogans and factoids, hung on a string of platitudes. Despite the name, candidates’ pre-election debates are exercises in looking authoritative, imposing their talking points on the questions, avoiding gaffes, and embarrassing their opponents with “zingers” (the historic paradigm: “There you go again.”).

There is a high level of political discussion in the editorials and op-eds of national newspapers and magazines as well as on a number of blogs, with positions often carefully formulated and supported with argument and evidence. But even here we seldom see a direct and sustained confrontation of rival positions through the dialectic of assertion, critique, response and counter-critique.
Such exchanges occur frequently in our law courts (for example, oral arguments before the Supreme Court) and in discussions of scientific papers. But they are not a significant part of our deliberations about public policy. As a result, partisans typically remain safe in their ideological worlds, convincing themselves that they hold to obvious truths, while their opponents must be either knaves or fools — with no need to think through the strengths of their rivals’ positions or the weaknesses of their own.

Is there any way to make genuine debates — sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible — part of our political culture? (I leave to historians the question of whether there are historical precedents— like the Webster-Hayne or Lincoln-Douglas debates.) Can we put our politicians in a situation where they cannot ignore challenges, where they must genuinely engage with one another in responsible discussion and not just repeat talking points?

A first condition is that the debates be focused on specific points of major disagreement. Not, “How can we improve our economy?” but “Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?” This will prevent vague statements of principle that don’t address the real issues at stake.

Another issue is the medium of the debate. Written discussions, in print or online could be easily arranged, but personal encounters are more vivid and will better engage public attention. They should not, however, be merely extemporaneous events, where too much will depend on quick-thinking and an engaging manner. We want remarks to be carefully prepared and open to considered responses.



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