The Puzzle of Political Debate

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

CrossfiredebateWe've noticed a strange phenomenon in contemporary political discourse. As our politics at almost every level become increasingly tribal — devoted to circle-the-wagons campaigns and on-point messaging of carefully curated party-lines — the dominant images of our politics are all the more dressed in the rhetoric of reason, debate, evidence, and truth. Hence a puzzle: political communication is almost exclusively conducted by means of purported debate among people with different views, yet citizens seem increasingly unable to grasp of the perspectives of those with whom they politically disagree. Indeed, that there could be reasoned disagreement about politics among well-informed, rational, and sincere people is a though that looks increasingly alien to democratic citizens. Consequently, despite all of the rhetoric, citizens show very little interest in actually talking to those with whom they disagree. In short, as appeals to reason, argument, and evidence become more common in political communication, our capacity to actually disagree — to respond to criticisms and objections, to address considerations that countervail our views, and to identify precisely where we think our opponents have erred — has significantly deteriorated. That's an odd combination of phenomena. Let's call it the puzzle of political debate.

To be sure, the images that dominate the landscape of political communication are mere images. Popular tropes such as “the no spin zone,” “fair and balanced” reporting, “straight talk,” “real clear politics,” and so on are merely slogans. And, similarly, the dominant “debate” format of television news is mostly political theater. However, these images and practices prevail. And they prevail because they are effective as marketing tools. So one must ask why citizens should demand that political views come packaged in this way. Here's an answer: an unavoidable fact about us is that we need to see ourselves as reasoners, debaters, and thinkers; and we need to see our own views regarding pressing social and political matters are the products of epistemically proper practice.

Consequently, any vision of democracy that prizes public discourse and civic debate must be supplemented by a properly social epistemology, an account of the ways in which people should go about forming, maintaining, and revising their political views, and a corresponding view of how democratic political institutions can aid or obstruct these processes. In providing a normative account of such matters, a social epistemology can also serve as a critical tool for assessing our present conditions.

Return now to the puzzle of political debate. What could explain the odd combination noted above of the enhanced appeal to the rhetoric of reason and argument in political communication, with the deterioration of skill and willingness to actually argue? The following is a brief sketch of one possibility.

Our shrinking social and political world has made it evident that we are socially embedded individuals. The fact of our dependence on others is unmistakable. Moreover, it has become increasingly obvious that we not only need others, but we need to be needed by others. That's how we make sense of ourselves as being reliable, honest, or generous. We can't manifest those virtues (or any other) without someone depending on us to be so. This enhanced sense of our moral interdependence brings the recognition of a similar epistemological interdependence. Here's why: As the social and political world gets smaller, it also grows more obviously complex, complicated, and confusing. This leaves individuals all the more aware of their relatedness (and the limits of those relations), but less sure about what to make of their contingency and fragility. Thus a premium is placed on epistemological stability, consonance, clarity, and ease. This is why it's easy for our political rhetoric to look so tribal in the first place. There are in-groups who get it and preserve it, and then there's everybody else.

Consequently, a market emerges for supplying a kind of epistemological service to bewildered individuals. The products in currency on this market are relatively simple and stable social and political perspectives, frameworks for thinking about complex and unfamiliar phenomena. But any such perspective can actually bring the desired stability only if it presents itself as uniquely reliable and accurate. And it can do that only if it can present itself as epistemically superior to opposing perspectives. Here a difficulty arises. The epistemological superiority of any given perspective can't actually be established except by honest engagement with opposing perspectives. However, honest engagement of this kind reintroduces all of the complexity and complication that the perspective was supposed to alleviate.

Those who seek to provide this epistemological service find themselves in a bind. They must portray their perspective as superior without actually engaging with any actual opposing views. Thus, there must only be the appearance of debate and argument, but not the real thing. Hence a media and news environment emerges where debate is mimicked for the sake of an onlooking audience. And, as we should expect, the central aim of mimicked debate is not that of making a direct case for one's favored view, but rather that of making the opposing views look unintelligible and incompetent rather than merely mistaken.

We see, then, that the puzzle of political debate is not so puzzling after all. The popular political rhetoric is not mere sloganizing and the practice of televising purported debate is not merely political theater. These are in the service of mimicking argument, providing imposters that serve to trick citizens into taking themselves to have done due epistemic diligence in forming and holding their political views. Hence it is no surprise that as citizens take themselves to know more about political affairs, they actually know less; for similar reasons, one should expect that citizens' confidence in their political views is inversely correlated with their ability to identify the most prevalent and formidable criticisms of them.

Now, one central task for a social epistemologist in a democratic society is to theorize the ways in which mimicked reasoning works. This would involve devising categories for diagnosing the mimicry, and developing strategies for disarming the mimics. We've taken a shot at the former task here, but there remains much work to be done. Our conclusion at present is modest but perhaps surprising: democratic theorists need to do epistemology.