by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
In the wake of the first Presidential Debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, two assessments have come to be widely accepted. The first is that Mitt Romney handily won the debate. The second is that Mitt Romney’s key claims in the debate were demonstrably inaccurate. Neither assessment taken on its own looks particularly noteworthy. But when they are affirmed together, they sound dissonant.
Here’s why. Debates are argumentative settings where one’s performance should be assessed on the basis of the relative quality of the arguments one presents. The quality of an argument depends on the truth of the information presented as premises and the relevance of that information to its conclusion. So if we know that an arguer is employing premises containing important inaccuracies, we should not judge his or her arguments as successful. Therefore we should not think he or she did well in the debate. Yet this is precisely what the conjunction of the two prevalent assessments of the Presidential Debate contends: Romney won the debate, but his central arguments were failures. There’s the dissonance.
We can anticipate what our critics will say: What Pollyannas these guys are! They may then continue: Academics are so naïve! Political debates aren’t about arguments, but rather cutting a striking pose, displaying one’s personality, connecting with an audience, and making one’s opponents look dumb. The critics might then raise the example of the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960, where Nixon was considered the winner by those listening on the radio, but Kennedy won with those who watched on TV. Nixon looked tired, but Kennedy looked, well, like a Kennedy. This leads our imagined critics to conclude: Winning over an audience, looking “presidential,” taking a commanding tone — that’s what political debate is really about. Everything else is just Ivory Tower chatter. And so goes a popular interpretation of democracy’s deliberative moments. This is a resolutely cynical stance concerning democracy, and in fact it takes its cynicism to be a kind of virtue. Let’s call it “just is” cynicism.