Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What Socrates has to teach the GOP candidates

More debates, more empty showcases.  The race has advanced to the final four, leaving only the candidates that have passed the vox popoli.  Despite the bid being a weeding-out process, it has not selected for the better, and the discourse is every bit as shallow as its ever been.  Despite what most people believe, its not just Rick Perry who is a poor debater. Every single GOP presidential candidate, to greater or lesser degrees, doesn't know how to debate.  Don't get me wrong, they're all good orators, and they're all, with the exception of Rick Perry, quick witted and possess a modicum of communication skills. Newt Gingrich, in particular, has shown himself to be the master of the riposte.  But no, I'm not talking about that. Rather I'm referring to their complete inability to win an argument in a unanimously satisfactory manner.

Think about it, in any of the debates, when have you ever enjoyed the silence of someone's defeat, the silence that calls for pity onto the interlocutor and his hapless argument?  Even with all my biases in favor of Ron Paul, I have yet to see him demolish his opponents to a breathtakingly conclusive extent.

In all fairness, this is partly the fault of the debate forum.  The debates number in the double-digits, and with the sole exception of Mike Huckabees recent Q&A, there has been no change in the debate setup, no variety that could reveal truths that haven't been exhausted before.  It is a testimony to how unimginative the mainstream media is that nothing different has been proposed and tried upon, which is why I was bummed when the Donald Trump debate never panned out.  Ron Paul simply dismissed it because a celebrity show host would be unfit to host a presidential forum, as if delegating that role to a collection of self-serving, establishment-promoting media heads was any better.

Since I have decried the lack of imagination in the mainstream media, I will take the time to offer my own proposal.  Simply put, I am suggesting a Socratic dialogue. All previous debates had it where the moderator (or some twitterer) would ask a question, allowing the asked candidate to answer. The questions were almost always as broad as the dawn and as shallow as a kiddy pool, leaving the candidate sufficient room to contort, evade, and redirect. Sometimes this would make way for another candidate to dispute the answer, but the dialogue would eventually devolve into a he-said-she-said argument, a spectacle that no one cares about.  And then it's over; thank goodness because I know someone's brain hurts.

This is why I am proposing the moderators change their routine entirely, and make the GOP runners use the Socratic method.  If my plan were implemented, candidates would have the opportunity to ask another competitor of their choosing five questions building up to a specific topic.  The asked candidate would be forced to answer the question in a concise, unevasive way, lest the next question be hurled to cover the avoided nuance.  The role of the questionnaire would rotate between candidates and moderators until every possible combination is tried, in which the cycle would repeat itself.

The reason the Socratic dialogue is superior is because constantly asking questions exposes the gaps of recipients arguments and knowledge base.  No longer can they ramble on with what they're comfortable with.  No longer can they substitute hard honest answers for talking points or attacks on Obama.

Ron Paul in particular would profit from utilizing the Socratic method. As much as I admire the man, he is a very poor persuader.  The only thing saving him is 1) the weight of his ideas, and 2) his fans know how to get the word out and create advertisements. It's not just that he lacks the powers of appearance and oratory, its the interpersonal techniques he uses.  He rarely asks the much needed question, preferring instead to reiterate his libertarian and often-times correct arguments.  For example, he would do well if he simply asked the question is maintaining an overseas empire, throwing out every evil dictator, and attempting to eradicate world terrorism compatible with a small and limited Government? The ideal Conservatives are so enamored with?  I have asked that question numerous times in forums around the internet and guess what answer I received? Nothing. They couldn't be bothered with it. But instead Paul converts the question into a positive statement, which is only met with evasions and arguments from necessity, like we have to fight this war, or whatever. And Paul could ask dozens of such questions regarding the Constitution, a declaration of war, who predicted the crises and what that means,  the role of the Federal Reserve, the bankers that Republicans never talk about, the list goes on.

Questions demand accountability and precision, something that is severely lacking in the mainstream political discourse.

Why this won't happen. There are many reasons why the Socratic dialogue will never be tried.  For one thing, it takes away the powers of the moderator, putting it into the hands of the better, more knowledgeable and logically sophisticated candidate.  Devising questions that run five levels deep isn't easy; more than anything it demands a strategic and logical mind.  No doubt the candidates would need more preparation and effort devising and preparing to answer multi-tiered questions than working on spewing the same old talking points. And secondly, it probably wouldn't be a crowd-pleaser.  Viewers want to see rhetorical gustos confirming their beliefs, not craftily constructed examinations that delve into complicated nuances of a viewpoint.

Let it not be said that the current debate forum doesn't have its merits.  That's not the point.  The point is that it is way overused; its now defunct as it has exhausted its capacity to spark new, meaningful conversation.  Whoever devises these debates needs to get creative.  I outlined one proposal, and I'd like to see others implemented as well.


  1. You can't use the Socratic method in the presence of extremely strong taboos that will earn you the metaphorical fate of Socrates should you transgress them. That IMO is why the political debate is so shallow, because nobody is allowed to actually take an honest position without massive retaliation from the MSM.

  2. I'm sure you're right. The real solutions lie outside the politically correct, so the candidates are confined to the superficial. Thing is, I think that's exactly why they should use the Socratic Method - it forces their opposition to give honest, successive answers that could potentially discredit them. In our politically correct playingfield, nobody wants to be on the answering end of a Socratic dialogue. The S.M is designed to make your opponents get trapped in a contradiction or an absurdity, not as a positive means to get its user's ideas out.