Evaluating Debates From Experience
by David Vincent Kimel
December 7, 2019
This interview with David Vincent Kimel was conducted and condensed by frank news. It was originally published in March 2019.
Mr. Kimel is a Yale Graduate Student in Roman History, Debate Coach Emeritus of the Yale Debate Association, two-time winner of Harvard's Coolidge Debating Prize, and Founder of the Transhumanist Society.
How has your history as an experienced debater informed your opinion on the subject?
I was privileged to be a member of the top ranked debate team in the country as an undergraduate at Harvard and the coach of the Yale Debate Association for six years. I also did some interviews with CNN and the Washington Post concerning political debates and served as an advisor for several campaigns. Insofar as this is true, I perhaps tend to watch and evaluate debates differently than many others do; for example, I am sensitive to tactics like dropping points, pivoting away from the questions at hand, delivering talking points instead of clear answers, etc. Unfortunately these all tend to be hallmarks of public political debates.
Why is debate as a medium so important?
Debate as a medium is important because at its best, it compels participants to see the world through the eyes of those who feel differently about the world than they do; at least this is true in competitive debate, where you can find yourself arguing any side of an issue in spite of your personal beliefs. In the realm of politics, debates compel candidates to try to articulate answers to difficult questions and to defend their perspectives using hard evidence, which is one indicator of what kind of a leader they might be if elected. Academically, the ability to debate respectfully is essential to progress in the arts and sciences, since debates can poke holes in existing theories and force advocates to diligently defend their beliefs and intuitions.
Do you think public debate should have a larger role in our national discourse?
I certainly believe that debate should have a larger role in our national discourse; when I turn on the news, depending on the channel I choose, I often feel like the priest is preaching to the choir; when I surf online, I can find “evidence” to support any cockamamie theory out there; when I visit Facebook, I see an avalanche of posts affirming my intuitions, and I disagree with my friends at the risk of losing them.
There are too many diatribes in our culture and not enough honest discussions.
Debate fosters tolerance for difference of opinion, and this is too often sorely lacking in our current political climate. Of course, however, certain issues should not be debatable, and there are limits to the usefulness of arguments divorced from consensus building.
Do you believe debate is crucial to democracy?
At its best, debate is crucial to democracy because it empowers voters to make up their minds after hearing the most articulate arguments for and against various positions rather than going to the ballot box inspired by one sided narratives and propaganda for your favorite candidate. People treat politics like team sports when they should really approach it more like a jury-trial.
Unfortunately, as they are currently practiced, political debates in the US tend to consolidate tribalism instead of counterbalancing it.
How would you adjust or change the current political debate format?
Insofar as this is true, certain steps can be taken to improve the quality of discourse. For example, I see no need for rowdy television audiences distracting viewers from the candidates’ ideas. There should be written debates instead of just oral ones, allowing for deeper levels of analysis. Moderators should be able to stop candidates when they veer into talking points. At the same time, politicians should be challenged more thoroughly on where they disagree with their party’s common platform. There should be more specific situational debates (what would you do if...) rather than just generalizing queries. Candidates should sometimes be asked to judge debates and evaluate expert opinions rather than just arguing among themselves. In some debates, candidates should engage with experts in the field rather than bickering with their opponents. There should be topical debates on issues like climate change and tax policy, and with great frequency too; this would be better than lumping every issue together in three or four events. Finally, perhaps there should be impartial judges who grade the candidates according to various metrics (poise, truthfulness, originality, etc), at least sometimes. Otherwise there’s no accountability for what’s said.
Who is the ideal moderator and what is the moderators role?
The ideal moderator should be a respected and impartial figure. However, much depends on the format. For example, in a debate about specialized topics, I’d like to see experts weigh in with their opinions and even debate the candidates. I’d also like to see more panels of moderators representing not only centrist positions, but a range of political intuitions. The problem now is that our formats for debates are not diverse enough. Sometimes, for example, the candidates themselves should be the moderators and be asked to synthesize and evaluate the opinions of others; we might learn more from how they judge debates than how they participate in them.
You coach collegiate debate – what makes for an effective debater?
There are great qualities which both effective collegiate and political debaters share in common: poise, eloquence, confidence, warmth, and truthfulness. Unfortunately, good college debaters are also experts at flattering judges into voting for them by playing up to their intuitions and exaggerating the flaws of the other side, and effective political debaters can preach to their base and drum up support by avoiding controversy instead of seeking truth.
The only way to counterbalance this is to vary the format so that we evaluate candidates not just on their answers, but on the way they go about reaching those answers.
There also needs to be more questions about compromise and consensus building and how candidates differ from cookie cutter stereotypes of their party’s common platforms.
How can we move beyond argument and bickering towards more effective debate?
For debate to be more than bickering, there needs to be a process after the debate takes place for a judge or jury to weigh arguments instead of pitting them against each other. This is one reason why I think candidates should sometimes be asked to judge debates instead of only participating in them. To democratize debate, there can be formats in which viewers from home can tell their stories and participate, etc.
But most importantly, the media should be willing to hold candidates accountable for their mistakes, even when that candidate belongs to their pet political party.