We have now had four debates among the Democratic presidential hopefuls. There are several things we have learned. To begin, this is a pretty capable group of people. They have all presented well-reasoned and decent ideas. There is, of course, a difference in how much reliance on government support their programs ask for, as well as less individual control, but I get the sense for most candidates ego takes a secondary role in their purpose for running.
They really do seem as if they want to do good things for the country, not their own gratification. Democrats will have a hard time settling on the right candidate from this highly qualified group.
As interesting as the discussions were, one of the discouraging things to me following the debates was the tendency for the media to talk about winners and losers. To me, that’s an inappropriate evaluation.
These are not debates in the traditional sense like we saw in high school and college. There, points are awarded by judges, totaled, and a winner assigned. What we are seeing on TV is less a debate and more a series of presentations with an occasional skirmish. If so, what is the right way to determine the winner? Do we measure how articulate they are? How cleverly they respond to criticism? How well they argue? Using these metrics, a person with a speech impediment would never be declared a winner. I think none of these criteria make a lot of sense. Really, it should be about how reasonable, realistic, and useful their ideas are. Presentation skills are way down the list, ranking right there with physical attractiveness.
We live in a society where competition reigns, whether in the business marketplace or the sports arena. It makes sense to talk about winners and losers in those cases because there are some objective measures: profits or scores. But in politics, the only real competition should be in an election where votes are counted. Anything else is a needless diversion. It is distracting when the media refers to a President Trump judicial victory or a congressional defeat or that Joe Biden won the Democratic debate.
Because we have evolved into a culture that disdains losers, we find it difficult to resolve issues. Even a good compromise will eventually be called a defeat for someone or some group. Thus, we eschew real ideological debates that should be about values and instead focus on somehow trying to name a winner. A huge shortcoming of our political process is that too many people too much of the time seek victories, not solutions. And, it would be so nice to occasionally see a headline declaring Congress decided on a particular program opposed by Trump rather than, “Congress hands Trump a defeat.” The latter may sell papers but it’s seldom constructive.
We must try to stay away from deciding winners and losers in policy decisions. We should be focusing on how well a particular outcome benefits our nation and citizens, not who has triumphed. Too many times, a political win is really a loss for the American people. How can that possibly be considered a victory?
Fred Abraham is professor emeritus and former head of the economics department at the University of Northern Iowa. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the university.