October 29, 2012

Facts for thought

Debates could be informative with live fact-checking, third-party participation.

Last Monday was the third and final debate of this presidential race—the source of Barack Obama’s now-notorious “horses and bayonets” comment, not to mention the final presidential debate of his political career.

Just as was the case with the previous debates (not to mention all 31 debates of this election cycle), the candidates spent at least as much time disputing the veracity of basic facts as they did debating policies. The public has consistently responded to the debates by blowing non-issues out of proportion, yielding scenarios that snowball nonsense, sensationalism, and confusion, and worse, reduce complex socio-economic issues to memes.

To put it bluntly, we once again learned nothing.

The reason for this goes back to the Commission on Presidential Debates and its confusing quarter-century history of bipartisan candidate salesmanship. As Board of Directors member Newton Minow explained in his interview with Steve Edwards at the Institute of Politics’ first presidential debate screening in Logan, the 1976, 1980, and 1984 presidential debates were run by the League of Women Voters, an organization whose name no longer fits its focus on voter registration and debate management. In 1987, the organization’s 14 trustees voted unanimously to abandon its role in the presidential debates, largely in protest of what it saw as the two major parties’ attempts to dictate the debates in their entirety.

Shortly thereafter, an agreement between the two parties led to the establishment of Minow’s Commission, which has been running the debates ever since.

Though the Commission claims to be “nonpartisan,” perhaps a better word is “bipartisan,” as it has historically been co-chaired by one Democrat and one Republican, at least one of whom has also served as a DNC or RNC chairman. In 2000, the Commission even introduced a rule requiring third-party candidates to have the support of at least 15 percent of voters (as projected by the average of five separate major national polls), thereby excluding every “notable” third party in recent history.

Moreover, although the Commission’s stated aim is “to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners,” and its ongoing goal is “educating voters,” it really seems to be anything but.

Time and time again, debunked claims find their way into the candidates’ arguments—not just contentious claims, but flat-out lies. For instance, outside of the debates (and, I suppose, candidate interviews and ads), most experts agree that it’s impossible to cut everyone’s taxes by 20 percent and simultaneously cut the deficit. The same goes for Paul Ryan’s favorite allegation that the President funneled $716 billion out of Medicare or Romney’s Obama-doubled-the-deficit claim. (It’s actually gone down by $200 billion, or from 10.1 percent of economic output in 2009 to just 7 percent in 2012.)

Though the methodology by which these statistics were compiled is agreed upon by almost all experts in their respective fields, the debates heave the responsibility of identifying and addressing one another’s falsehoods to the candidates themselves, thereby pitting one biased man’s word against another’s. Can we realistically expect there to be any discussion with true educational value in such a context?

Meanwhile, audiences have responded by inflating non-issues to melodramatic extremes—a fine reaction by itself, but not when coupled with comprehensive public misunderstanding of the underlying issues. For instance, despite the high-intensity public outrage that followed Romney’s proposition to completely cut PBS funding, 73 percent of us still don’t know that money for PBS and NPR makes up less than 1 percent of government spending. Unbelievably, as much as 7 percent of this mistaken majority believes that public broadcasting makes up more than half of the federal budget.

In other words, Mitt Romney’s threat to defund Big Bird should have been much more than a meme: It should have represented the candidate’s gross misunderstanding of budgetary issues.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve come to judge the presidential debates—and as a direct result, the competing candidates—on the basis of confidence. In spite of Romney’s bounty of nonsensical and misleading statements in the first presidential debate, it was widely agreed on both sides that the Republican presidential candidate won the debate. In other words, our debates have turned into battles of candidates trying to out-confidence each other. It’s not about a meaningful discussion (or even comparison) of competing policies that helps the public determine which policy plan it feels is best for the country, but about which candidate is more convinced that he already has all the answers.

It’s no wonder that an entire week after these so-called “educational” debates played to audiences of 67 million, so many voters remain undecided.

There are many ways that the Commission can modify presidential debates so that they aim toward what should be the greater goal of educating the population. In particular, it can invite third-party candidates instead of arresting them. Even if they don’t win, third-party candidates can help audiences begin to understand that there are three-dimensional perspectives to seemingly two-sided problems. For predominantly red or blue states, voting for a third party can also help push forward policies that would have otherwise been overlooked—for instance, Libertarian proposals like marijuana legalization, or Green Party ideas like the abolition of the Electoral College.

The Commission can also opt to allow live fact-checking by the moderator, the IBM super-computer (and Jeopardy! champion) Watson, or better yet, both at the same time. Fact checking can prove even more valuable, as it will force candidates to tell the truth, and will actually fulfill the debates’ stated purpose of “educating” the public.

Until then, of course, it’s up to audiences to make their own calls on fact and fiction, and between honesty and over-confidence. But, with 40 percent of Medicare recipients reporting that they have never used a government social program, I’m just not sure that this is a sustainable approach.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.