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Malcolm Gladwell Changed My Opinion about the Value of Presidential Debates

Frank Fear: Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to focus extensively on candidates’ records? Debates are notoriously bad in that regard.

You won’t find the words debates, election, or presidentialelection in the index of Gladwell’s newest book, Talking with Strangers. His book’s intent is well captured in the subtitle: “what we should know about the people we don’t know.” But what Gladwell did for me is what he has done by way of previous books. He brings to life seven important words in critical thinking: “I never thought about it that way!

Democratic Debates

Gladwell does that by helping a reader look at something familiar through a pair of fresh eyes. And that’s what happened when I applied his writing to an analysis of presidential debates.

Using Gladwell’s language, national political candidates are ‘strangers.’ We don’t know these people, but—as we always do with strangers—we try to size them up. I had never thought of presidential candidates as strangers. But once I did, it opened the door to a wave of new thoughts about presidential debates.

How so? I’ve concluded that debates are a particularly poor way for us—the voters—to size up candidates. Why? Per Gladwell, it’s because we rely on a faulty—albeit seemingly reasonable—screening device. We interpret their presentation of self.

Think about it. The candidates work hard to be on their best behavior as they perform on a stage. So why not be drawn to candidates who make an especially positive impression, things like speaking well and firmly, looking into the camera, offering cogent and succinct responses, being quick on the uptake, and ‘looking the part’ (presidential)? How we react to what we see on TV is akin to how we respond in face-to-face encounters when strangers have a firm handshake and look us squarely in the eye. Those behaviors are likely to elicit our trust.

But just the opposite applies, too. Gladwell analyzes the Amanda Knox case. Knox, an American college student studying in Italy, was accused of helping to murder her roommate. Although insufficient evidence of her guilt was brought forth—including DNA evidence—Knox had one big thing going against her—she looked and acted guilty. Knox fit pre-conceived notions about what and how a guilty person looks and acts. And it cost her dearly.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to focus extensively on candidates’ records? Debates are notoriously bad in that regard.

Gladwell dives further. Citing research, Gladwell reports that we are more likely to size up a stranger correctly when s/he tells us the truth (e.g., “Did you steal the money?”). But the same research shows we are far less able to get it right when a stranger either tells a falsehood or tries to get us to affirm an outcome that s/he prefers. For example, researchers compared the performance of judges who made bail hearing decisions for high-risk defendants’ who pleaded their case before them vis-à-vis a computer’s assessments of the same pool of defendants using profile data on the defendants. When recidivism data were analyzed, the machine beat human judgment handily.

Over and over again, we rely on our ability to size up a stranger, but we often get it wrong—sometimes with disastrous results. Bernie Madoff, the presumed financial guru, sucked in thousands of investors before it was obvious that he had ‘made off’ with their money through a Ponzi scheme. In pre-WWII Britain, British PM Neville Chamberlain was convinced that Hitler didn’t have imperialistic intent—and Chamberlain told Britain as much—after having met with Hitler multiple times. In reality, Hitler conned Chamberlain. Michigan State’s Larry Nassar perpetrated hundreds of sexual assaults of young women (many girls) over an extended period—sometimes with a parent in the room. Nassar was perceived as fitting the role of a caring, competent, and nationally recognized physician to the Olympics. It took loads of time, and gobs of evidence, to tip the scale against him.

Why do we have such a hard time sizing up strangers? One reason, Gladwell asserts, is that we tend to default to the truth. In other words, we tend to take strangers at face value. Second, we fall victim to the illusion of transparency, believing that what we see is what we get. And, third, we fail to appreciate the implications of context.

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That last of Gladwell’s three factors, context, is worth exploring. How so? We tend to put our context before the stranger’s context. In a debate context, that means we’re more likely to put our need to pick a candidate ahead of the candidate’s desire to seek our support. And that choice plays into candidates’ hands. But it wouldn’t if we relied more extensively on different platforms for evaluating candidates.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to focus extensively on candidates’ records? Debates are notoriously bad in that regard. Consider the recent ‘my health plan is better than your health plan’ back-and-forth—without much depth associated with explaining anybody’s health plan.

What’s more, debates are artificial, staged events that don’t align well with a presidential role. Participating in a debate to a politician is what writing a doctoral dissertation is to an aspiring professor. Each activity relates generally to respective future roles, but each role accounts for only a fraction of what a person will do in those respective future roles. Evaluating how a doctoral candidate writes a journal article or teaches a class represents a much better way of evaluating future performance in professorial roles. Participating in a press conference or giving a speech on a significant policy issue would offer the same evaluative quality for a political candidate.

Debates aren’t useless. The problem is that they are framed as CRITICAL EVENTS associated with voter decision making. We believe that eyeballing candidates in a group setting is a really good way to judge those who are running for office. Of course, TV networks are happy to oblige and respond to consumer preference by televising one debate after another.

But the consequences can be problematic. Without question, Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy has benefitted significantly from his debate performances. But what gets short shrift is the very serious matter of Buttigieg’s record as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. For that, voters either need to study his record or turn to investigative reporting. In a piece published last week, the LA Times reported that California’s Progressive are raising serious questions about Buttigieg’s candidacy—and for two good reasons—his mayoral record and his policy proposals as presidential candidate.

On the flip side, Elizabeth Warren lost support with some voters because she was perceived as sidestepping a debate question about how she’d pay for Medicare-for-All. To some, Warren appeared deceptive. But, again, wouldn’t it have been better to focus on Warren’s record and policy proposals—things that are available, detailed, and far more relevant to her playing the role of president than a debate-stage answer? Or, at the very least, why not give Warren more time to explain herself, which she would have had in a press conference or town hall format? Instead, via a debate, America was treated to a ‘gotcha moment.’

Sadly, presidential elections these days are media events, and debates fill the bill. So we end up loading excessive weight on a format that makes it relatively easy for voters to draw half-baked conclusions, make misguided judgments, and—then—sometimes feel remorse for their voting behavior. Thousands of Americans are doing that right now—voters who cast a ballot for Donald Trump in 2016 and now wish they hadn’t. But, really, the Trump of today is the same Trump that we was back then. In Gladwell’s terms, these voters were taken in by a stranger, but now they are blaming the stranger rather than blaming themselves.

Last week, the British Progressive, George Monbiot, offered a worthy alternative to making more valid judgments, including voting in national elections. Writing in The Guardian, Monbiot argued that it’s too easy for us to be misled, even duped. To avoid ending up in a vulnerable spot, Monbiot recommends that each of us adopt the habit of rigorous learning and that we encourage the development of a public culture of intellectual self-improvement. Put another way, Monbiot wants us to take a more refined and critical eye to matters—to upshift our thinking.

Monbiot’s perspective is laudable. But the sad reality is that neither outcome seems likely in today’s media-focused, entertainment-soaked society where superficiality trumps depth, literally and figuratively.

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When’s that next debate?

Frank Fear

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