Josh Weinstein thinks about rhetoric and argumentation with more nuance and subtlety than anyone I know. At the moment, he’s developing Argmaps, a web-based platform for structured inquiry into really hard questions. In the conversation that follows, we talk about why contemporary political debate so rarely solves problems or illuminates anything.
Matt Bieber: Our political discourse places a premium on debate. We spend most of the time shouting at each other, and we imagine debate to be a higher, more refined form of interchange (hence the seriousness and high stakes surrounding the presidential debates, for example). If only we could have a serious, rational debate, we tell ourselves.
But you think that debate is the wrong goal. If I understand you correctly, you see debate as intellectually mercenary. The point isn’t to collaborate in order to solve a problem or to learn something. Rather, it’s simply to defend what you already think, to try to look cool while you ‘defeat’ your ‘opponent’.
Josh Weinstein: Well yeah, I guess the first thing I want to say is that there are other ways to talk about the same subject with other people. I would like to see more people working together to reach a clearer view of the matter. That kind of talk doesn’t really fit with the kind of talking heads stuff we’re used to, because it requires a strong commitment to clarifying the issue in general, whereas the speakers on those shows are often there to advance much narrower interests.
You know, I was going to say more about what a better debate would look like, but now I’m wondering to what extent those talking head shows are even meant to be persuasive. They seem like they’re more about vamping in the key of prior commitments, about parading guests through an ecosystem animated by values foreign to them, or orchestrating a sort of verbal street fight.
So, yeah, I mean it really depends on what you want. If you want to understand something, to get the clearest view of it you can, then I think it’s really better to enlist the support of others to further that aim with you, and to seek out media where that’s happening. If you’ve already made up your mind, or believe the issue amounts to a value conflict where you have strong commitments, and persuading others to your value is the priority, then you’ve gotta focus on drawing up battle plans, cribbing moves from Brooks, Krugman, or what have you, so you’ll be on better footing around the water cooler.
MB: I’m thinking about our presidential debates in particular. On one hand, I would love to see a truly open-ended exchange between the nominees, a moment in which the candidates acknowledge some uncertainty and try to work through a problem together. Given your last paragraph, though, I’m wondering whether it even makes sense to imagine that kind of thing. After all, our political campaigns are profoundly – perhaps even inherently – adversarial. They’re contests with winners and losers, and winning seems to require both ‘commitments’ (even if they’re only pretend) and persuasion. Maybe the only way I can even conceive of truly exploratory conversation in that context is if it’s driven by a candidate who has no shot of winning.
JW: The structure of those debates often precludes a real, searching inquiry. Unless both candidates were confident in their ability to excel in an inquiry, I’m not sure they’d agree to a looser format. The audience isn’t demanding it, and may respond poorly to it. These are sales events, not the best home to inquiry.
MB: Is there a home for real inquiry in politics at all? Part of me wants to suggest that it’s not possible during campaigns, but that it might be possible in the behind-the-scenes parts of the governing process. We have internal think tanks throughout the government, and they seem to be able to get away with slightly more expansive thinking precisely because they’re not accountable to the public in the same way that politicians are. And politicians themselves have long acknowledged that they treat each other differently in the committee room than they do on the campaign trail.
Still, though, it seems that most politicians enter the fray because they believe they have the answers – or at least an ideology that will lead to the answers – already in hand. In other words, the political process seems to select against truly inquiring minds.
JW: I share your intuitions about the campaign trail, but yeah, I think outside of that there is room for more inquisitive media around politics, and to the extent that can be fostered, maybe it can rub off a little bit. It seems to me that candidates are usually meant to represent values, but what you say is provocative: what would a polity look like where a candidate’s ability to think was a real boon? As a voter, I’d still want the candidate that shared more of my values. Unless evaluating or delivering on a value was at stake.
MB: Two thoughts. Part of the reason that a candidate’s ability to think isn’t currently much of a boon is that most politicians either believe or pretend to believe that politics and governing don’t involve hard problems. There’s this aw-shucks quality surrounding most candidacies: If only we had more common sense in Washington, etc. (Think of John McCain – the head of the Senate Commerce Committee and a presidential candidate – admitting that he didn’t know much about how the economy works. You would think that this would be an immediate disqualifier – perhaps that he would have taken himself out of the race – but no.)
The last thing you said was also really intriguing. What do you mean by ‘evaluating a value’? And why might you care about that in a political candidate?
JW: Campaigns have taught us to expect a simple value opposition that puts us neatly on one side or the other. I can’t remember the last time a candidate really tried to illuminate a complex issue in the way that popular science writers make science accessible with metaphors. I think this would be a difficult strategy to pursue, especially if the opposition made only simple, digestible statements. There is a way to ennoble the capacity to grok hard problems, but I’ve not seen that done here. That’s part of what it takes to evaluate a value. To stand in complexity, acknowledging the difficulties–that’s a man step away from hiding behind a presumed value. To evaluate a value, you’ve gotta be boldly transparent. You’ve gotta say, “this before that”, and in some cases you can’t ground that in anything other than your vision for our country. But you can explain the background and consequences of that evaluation, and do one better by articulating the differences between your positions and those of your opponents. “I believe that the right to bear arms unconditionally is not worth the deaths of 432 children each year due to the accidental discharge of firearms in American homes. You, sir, you disagree. You believe that the right to bear arms is worth the deaths of 432 kids. Some will agree with me, some with you, but that is where we stand.”
In the end, as a practical matter, governing just is a series of these prudential and evaluative calculi. So it’s important that candidates can do more than parrot values. They need to be able to evaluate them. After all, these people have their finger on the nukes!