Culture of debate

The culture of debate is essential to a healthy democracy. By forcing candidates to present their positions on the issues that matter, public debates give voters the opportunity to make a better-informed choice.

October 18, 2012 23:38
3 minute read.
Romney, Obama point at each other during debate

Romney, Obama point at eachother during debate 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)

More often than not there is no correlation between who wins a US presidential debate and who wins the election, according to numerous studies by political scientists.

Democrat John Kerry was said to have trounced Republican George W. Bush in all three of their debates in the run up to the 2004 elections, but Bush won the race.

And even in cases where debates have an impact on election results – as in the first-ever televised US presidential debate in 1961 between the calm, collected and debonair John Kennedy and the haggard, sweating Richard Nixon – the turnaround had little to do with substance and more to do with appearances.

Similarly, when Binyamin Netanyahu outmatched Shimon Peres in a televised debate ahead of the 1996 elections, it was largely due to the younger candidate’s command of media, including Netanyahu’s prudent use of “sound bite” messages, looking straight at the camera and effective body language.

Nevertheless, we would like to join the call made this week by the Movement for Quality Government to introduce the culture of public debate into the Israeli political scene.

But we would like to go one step further: While the movement, in a letter to the prime minister, restricted its call to debates “among those who see themselves as prime ministerial candidates,” we believe public debates should take place among the leaders of all the larger political parties.

Public debates – whether in a traditional televised framework with a moderator, in a town hall format, or even via text messaging, Twitter or the Web – could bring a little more depth to a political discourse that tends to devote precious little time to the issues.

In recent days, endless hours of airtime and thousands of printed words have been devoted to the intrigues taking place behind closed doors within Shas between Eli Yishai and Arye Deri. But with elections just over three months away, hardly any media coverage has been devoted, say, to the policies implemented over the past four years by Shas’s Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias or by the party’s Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen. As a party that touts itself before the voting public as sensitive to socioeconomic issues, Shas’s track record should be put under public scrutiny at least as much as soap opera-esque goings on behind the scenes in Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s fiefdom.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, should not only be given the opportunity to attack the incumbent government, they should also be forced to articulate precisely how they plan to do a better job.

Public debates are the only opportunity voters get to see candidates answering the same questions and responding to one another’s arguments in real time.

Candidates’ answers to the most burning questions – from public education and the Iran threat to haredi draft-dodging and the peace process with the Palestinians – provide voters with the essential information needed to make an educated choice.

And there are many intangibles that can be gleaned from a public debate. Normally exposed to politicians delivering over-rehearsed performances while reading from teleprompters, voters can better gain a sense of candidates’ dispositions, intellectual honesty and ability to connect on a human level in the spontaneous atmosphere of a heated debate.

One of the explanations given by political scientists for the lack of impact debates tend to have on elections is that many voters have already made up their minds. Rarely will a debate’s outcome, no matter how unequivocal, shake voters from party affiliation.

Cognitive dissonance forces many voters to root for their chosen candidate no matter how badly he or she was beaten in the debate.

Nevertheless, the culture of debate is essential to a healthy democracy. By forcing candidates to present their positions on the issues that matter, public debates give voters the opportunity to make a better-informed choice. What voters do with that opportunity is up to them.

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