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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Protecting the truth in presidential debates

Published: October 12, 2012
Section: Opinions

Like many Americans, I found myself watching the presidential debates last Thursday. It had been years since I had actually sat down to watch a political debate, and after watching I could only hope it would be a longer time until the next. The number of times a candidate actually addressed a question was far and few in between. Actual clash between the two candidates was minimal enough at times to make one wonder whether they were aware of each other’s presence.

Meanwhile, moderator Jim Lehrer seemed more lifeless than Big Bird in a Romney administration. Regardless of your opinions on the debate, Truth was the real loser in that contest. Both candidates seemed to handle the facts as loosely as they handled the moderator. Yet, in a system in which we are told that “you can usually judge the winner of a debate by muting the sound and watching body language,” this is not all that surprising. What incentive does one have to tell the truth if one can gain far more by lying? Better to be confident than honest, appears to be the maxim of our political system.

That is why I have a small proposal to help our political system garner a little more honesty so that the American people can make a more informed decision on Election Day: The presence of a fact checker during a debate that would literally let viewers know when a candidate was lying. To avoid getting bogged down in details, I’m going to presume that we can have a system where when a candidate misspeaks vaguely (for example, if he says he plans to cut the deficit by $5 rather than $4.99) that this will be denoted somehow separately from outright perversions of the facts. Admittedly this takes a leap of faith but I believe that modern technology could figure it out. This proposal, if implemented, would have a myriad of benefits.

The first main benefit to this system would be an increase in truth in the political system, for several reasons. First and most obviously, candidates would have a much larger incentive to tell the truth. In the status quo, a candidate can lie through an entire debate and still be seen as the “winner.” Even if a fact check afterward proves that he was telling more lies than a snake oil salesman offering discounts, it is too little and too late to offset the political bump he gets for winning the debate. In my system, a candidate who lied would not be able to score political points. A candidate appearing to win a debate when the audience is aware that he has been telling numerous lies throughout seems rather unlikely. At worst, this still provides for more accountability than the status quo.

Another reason that this system would produce more truth in debates is that candidates would go out of their way to avoid lying in order to avoid being called out by the system during the debate. This is especially preferable to the status quo insofar as the only way someone can call out a lie during debates now is by leveling the charge and hoping somebody cares. My system is preferable because instead of “he said, she said,” we get the definite determination that something is or is not a lie. As a result of this effect, candidates are likely to make sure to weed out any potential lies during debate preparation. Thus, the very chances of a lie being uttered are minimized.

Finally, even if candidates still lie, an audience who knows that the statement is a lie will most likely disregard the statement. Therefore, even if lies take place with my proposal, they will be less harmful in terms of perpetuating falsehoods.

The second main benefit of this change would be the effects upon the American political system. The reason we value truth so much in our political system is because we want voters to be able to make a rational decision to vote for whoever best represents their interests in the election. The key to making a rational decision is to have the relevant information about the alternatives one must choose between.

Lies, which undermine the accuracy of the portrayal of candidates, therefore meaningfully harm the ability of people to make a rational decision. For example, let us say that Big Bird and Kermit are running for president (we will use that example while we still have it). Let us say that Big Bird is pro-life but lies during a debate and states he is pro-choice. When voters go to the ballot box, they are operating on inaccurate information and therefore are making a meaningfully worse decision in regard to choosing someone to represent their interests.

Thus, by allotting for more truth in elections, the United States gains an electoral system that better represents the views of its people. Additionally, more truth in elections would lessen voter apathy. In the status quo, many people do not trust politicians. This mistrust parlays itself into a lack of voter engagement and ultimately voter turnout. By having more truth in debates, we can at least somewhat engage these people more substantively than we are currently. The final benefit that my proposal would obtain is the increasing relevance of political debates. Today, debates are labeled as unique forums where the candidates can debate their political platforms, but that does not meaningfully take place when politicians can willfully disavow their platforms to score political points. With the implementation of my system, debates would actually represent meaningful clashes of ideology and policy proposals, not simply an attempt to make up whatever is necessary to win the point at hand.

Debates should not be all about who has the best posture or who looks the most engaged—it should be about whose policies and stances people believe to be the best for the country. By implementing a proposal where politicians have to defend the ideals they stand for, we get a better debate and a better political system as a whole.