What About These Public debates?

Recently an estimated 27,000 young people crowded into Washington Square in New York cheering on their favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders, for the democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders is opposed by the establishment candidate, Hilary Clinton, and both candidates squared off in their debate, across the river, in Brooklyn some days later.

It was, as one columnist wrote, “one hell of an affair with accusations ranging from tax returns to downright incompetency” hurled about. They out shouted each other while a split crowd roared its approval. Indeed the Brooklyn debate turned into what has been described as a “slugfest” . From the first minute to the last they questioned “each other´s judgment, susceptibility to lobbyists and grasp of political reality”.

The ability to avoid insult and personalizing exchanges has almost disappeared from public debates on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the Obama-Clinton debate some eight years ago Hilary Clinton directly accused Barack Obama of plagiarism in his speeches and being dishonest with his audiences.

It was a personal attack on Obama’s integrity, but Obama, instead of replying directly to Clinton’s rather below the belt attack, told his Texan audience that he thought some of his speeches were, in fact, quite good, and that practically all of the main media in Texas agreed with him. Indeed, he pointed out that the opinion polls showed that they had endorsed him. It was a clever master stroke that took the heat out of the debate, and left Mrs. Clinton vulnerable. Finally, as the Obama debates with Clinton show, the best communicators are usually the best listeners.

Looking at the debating styles of both Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the Socialist Party, and Mariano Rajoy, the Popular Party leader in Spain, we find a classic clash between the intermediate grand style of Mr. Sanchez and the more forensic style of Mr. Rajoy. But absent from the Spanish debate, as it was in the recent Brooklyn debate, were the use of natural wit, good humor, and a show of mutual respect. This seems a pity.

A good example: Reagan and the age issue

In the history of political debates, many commentators say it was Reagan’s wit and good humor that won him the famous Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984. Reagan, according to practically all of the commentators at the time, was not up to the rigors of debating and Mondale was way ahead of his opponent.

However, matters changed with Mr. Reagan’s response when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be President. He had the wit alongside the good humor to respond to Mondale, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Walter Mondale, his opponent, had to laugh. Everyone became relaxed and Reagan went on to charm his audiences. The important word is “charm” and not “win”:

According to Aristotle, in the Politics, “Man is by nature a political animal.” What Aristotle is saying to us is that, “Man by nature is an animal fitted for life in a polis”. Jean Pierre Vernant, in The Origins of Greek Thought, wrote “The system of the polis implied, first of all, the extraordinary preeminence of speech over all other instruments of power. Speech became the political tool par excellence …”. Today political oratory and debate form an essential part of this “preeminence of speech”. Debate, in particular, demands techniques of argumentation as well as the right emotional response, but more importantly it needs the credibility of the speakers.

Today, almost all of us, whether politicians, executives or managers are involved in some form of verbal exchange either in face-to-face meetings or in teleconferencing. Debating is relevant to us all. One practical piece of advice is for us to consider our credibility as a speaker (ethos), our emotional appeal to our audience (pathos), and lastly our ability to put forward an argument (logos).

Although most of us would agree with Aristotle in his assertion that man is fitted for a life in a polis, we also have to admit that the temptation to want to “win” has led most of our debates today into an argumentative cul-de-sac. What we need is more wit and good humor to create a stronger emotional attachment with the positive side of our audiences, and not to turn debating into a competitive shouting match. Our credibility is our most important asset and not our ability to “out argue” our opponent based on accusation and inconsistencies. Indeed one could conclude that good politics is the management of speech whether it is interpersonal, in debate or in public discourse.

2 thoughts on “What About These Public debates?

  1. Most people miss the old style. Indeed, President Reagan answer is a very good example. However, nowadays political debates are more similar to the I World War Verdun Battle: lots of time fighting, any movement, many injuries and casualties and no news.

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