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Why was the second (and final) presidential debate so much more satisfying than the train wreck that took place the first time the candidates jousted?

Kudos have been handed to the debate’s moderator, although changes to the structure of the event (specifically the decision to turn off the microphone of the person who was not speaking) limited the candidates’ ability to interrupt or talk over each other. This left them in a position where they were forced to deliberate, rather than shout each other down or perform the kind of antics that left most audiences for debate #1 bewildered or angry.

Deliberation is where critical thinking and democratic politics meet. While the structure of institutions varies from one democratic nation to the next, they all serve the same purpose: to allow discussion and debate between rival groups to drive decision making, with votes being the mechanism whereby final outcomes between disputing parties are decided.

Even if such votes are won by a majority party that may have poorer arguments for their positions, that party became the majority by winning a previous set of arguments presented to voters over who should be voted into office.

Now there are all kinds of ways real-world political debates diverge from the pristine arguments presented in a logic or critical-thinking class. Money or celebrity can provide one side the means to amplify their message in ways that drown out opponents, or demagogues can use their skill at oratory to deceive rather than convince an audience. But even at its most flawed, democratic deliberation serves as a bulwark against the alternative that democracy is designed to hold at bay: political violence leading to rule not by those with the best arguments, but by the strongest and most ruthless.

Many people described the second debate as “normal,” i.e., typical of the types of presidential debates we have seen in previous elections, which may explain why a public craving normalcy in such an abnormal year found the event comforting. It’s also worth noting that the candidate who fared worst for his misbehavior in the first debate, President Trump, benefited during the second debate by calming down enough to engage in actual deliberation with an opponent. For even if he “won some and lost some” on specific points, he was able to present a version of himself to audiences that came closer to presidential.

This (probably temporary) return to normalcy also revived traditional arguments we have over the nature of televised presidential debates.

For example, even when the candidates aren’t shouting at each other, they rarely answer questions or engage with each other’s arguments, preferring instead to use a moderator’s or town-hall member’s question as an excuse to insert pre-planned talking points or zingers into the conversation. This is a complaint we have heard for decades, one which represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of televised debates.

In fact, questioning why presidential candidates debating on television don’t act like individuals arguing with each other represents a fallacy – a category error – in which one type of communication (televised debates) is judged by a standard relevant to a different category (two people arguing in order to convince each other of something).

In a one-on-one argument, each debater is trying to persuade the other person (who is their audience) to accept his or her position as true. But there are all kinds of debates where the audience is not an opponent, but someone else.

For example, in the courtroom the prosecutor could not care less what the defense attorney believes (and vice versa) since the audience each attorney is trying to convince is the judge and/or jury. Similarly, Vice President Biden was not making points in order to get President Trump to come around to his way of thinking. In fact, if either candidate paused after listening to a point and said: “Gosh, you convinced me! I’ve been wrong all along,” we would find such an exchange baffling, if not disturbing. That’s because the audience for presidential debates is not the other candidate, the moderator, or members of a live or town-hall audience, but viewers watching the contest on television and members of the media who might declare who won and who lost.

Putting aside the category error fallacy many debate viewers suffer from, fallacies and argumentative misbehaviors on the part of the candidates were on full display at last week’s event, demonstrating that a return to normalcy should not be mistaken for this year’s presidential candidates acting as models of deliberative reason.

President Trump, for example, began a defense of his administration’s response to coronavirus with that base-rate fallacy described earlier which tried to persuade us that, if not for him, the nation would have suffered over two-million deaths from the disease. Trump also dedicated much of his time to using innuendo to claim his opponent was corrupt due to questionable business activities of Biden’s son, a less-than-effective strategy, given Trump’s history of blending presidential and business roles (including having several of his own family members on the federal payroll).

Ironically, a low point for Joe Biden came when he failed to use an equivocation fallacy to explain an obvious turnaround with regard to the energy extraction process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” which he claimed he would shut down during the primary, only to reverse that position once he won the nomination. Normally candidates that play to their party’s activists in primary season, who then tack back to the center during the general election, find ways to explain such flips as refinements of their original position or a change of heart resulting from deliberation on the matter. While such explanations are usually disingenuous, they are better than the tactic Biden chose of claiming he never held his original anti-fracking position – an easily checkable falsehood that likely damaged trust in him, trust being vital to a candidate’s ethos.

Even if the deliberation on display last week was light-years away from Lincoln-Douglas, the public’s positive reaction to a more-familiar deliberative form of combat should put to rest the notion that voters like their candidates to act like trash-talking professional wrestlers. We don’t. We want those asking for our votes to engage with each other, and with us, through reasoned arguments – however imperfect.


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