The Internecine Politics Undermining the Civility of Political Discourse?


Brexit has spawned a form of internecine politics in the UK that is a lose-lose for all – the politicians, parties, and the nations, and very likely, the public interest. Conservatives have referred to ‘blue on blue’ attacks on one’s own party members, but not as in military parlance, accidental. These are really intentional efforts to destroy other members of the parliament, and often in one’s own political party.

This blue-on-blue warfare was mentioned in the debate on 9 July 2019 between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, but that is but one example of a daily dose of hyper-personal, destructive, political, hatchet jobs that leaves everyone diminished. Today, the former PM John Major threatened to take the next UK PM to court if he were to try to force a no-deal Brexit. He did not simply express his view on a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but threatened the next PM.

Of course, politics in the USA is as vicious, if not more so – consider the warfare between the late John McCain and Donald Trump. All are diminished in such exchanges.

Has politics become more hyper-personal, vicious and internecine, or has the media and social media, as claimed by some, not only a cause of this dysfunctional communication, but is it also or primarily making normal politics more visible?

Optimistically, maybe it is the latter. Perhaps politics has always be as personal and corrosive, and what we see is a social media example of what was called by Joshua Meyrowitz a ‘no sense of place‘ of the mass media. Every insult, threat, or attack is immediately tweeted, blogged, leaked, and/or reported on the mainstream 24-hour news channels. No politician can escape the constant gaze of the media (often via social media) today. A positive outcome, arguably, is that we know too much to hold any politician on a pedestal. Politicians are very human with many faults.

So maybe it is the latter n – a media impact. That might mean there is hope that politicians, the press, and media can learn to hold their fire in the public interest. But the search for followers, likes, ratings, and viewers make this unlikely.

While this is unlikely, given that such internecine conflicts generate listeners, readers, and viewers, it is also in the self-interest of any politician to not indulge in, or try their best to avoid, these political attacks. So it may be down to the politicians to address this problem.

In earlier times, one was advised to go ahead and write the angry memo to your boss or colleague to get your grievance off your chest, but then put it in your desk drawer, and read it the next day. In the light of the next day, the logic goes, the overly vituperous memos or letters would be shredded and forgotten. Well, memos are rare today, as are desk drawers, and tweets work best in live action, so restraint will be more difficult in these times. But this is possible. Draft a tweet on any other media than Twitter, and then send it the next day!

All parties need to realise that clicks, views, and news coverage are not indicators of agreement or support of a comment. This member of the public is becoming exhausted and disappointed by these internecine, hyper-personal political hatcket jobs. Sadly, they alienate many of others among the public. Surely it may seem naive, but in everyone’s interest to be more civil, less personal, more restrained, and more empathetic. Politics is the art of compromise, and not war carried on by other means.

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I was pleased to see some aspects of my concerns reflected in what might have been PM Teresa May’s last major speech as Prime Minister. She spoke about the decline of public discourse, talking about what she called the “coarsening [of] our public debate”, noting that “Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.” While she attributes some aspects of this to online media, she did not put all the blame on digital or social media, but on an increasing factionalism and what she called an ‘absolutism’, which for example is so apparent in debates over Brexit. I find support in her voicing some of my concerns with public discourse albeit she has put these points across much better and to a far larger audience. 

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates and their Media Organizations

Lessons can be learned from this year’s primary debates and applied to enhance the value of the forthcoming US Presidential Debates, beginning on September 26th, 2016. The major lessons include the following:

  1. Moderators should aim to generate a debate between the candidates, and not move towards a series of interviews with the individual candidates. This was a problem with the primary ‘debates’. Ask questions that both candidates can respond to and debate.
  1. Put the candidates in the center of the discussion. It has been said that the moderator should not be the news coming out of the debate. The best moderator will be the one who can pose questions that will engage the candidates in an exchange among themselves and not a back and forth with the moderator.

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    Kennedy and Nixon in Debate
  1. Voters depend on the debates for information about the candidates and their views on the issues. The issues are those of domestic and foreign policy, not what she said or he said about the other. By focusing on the issues, the moderators have an opportunity to make the debates more valuable to voters, and that will be the test of the quality of these debates, not how entertaining, smart, informed or combative the moderator might be. The moderators are not running for office.

CNN argued that moderation of NBC’s “Commander in Chief Forum” with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “exposed the many weaknesses of the moderator-driven format.” Actually, all of the primary debates, including those produced by CNN, proved this point quite dramatically. So, please set up a debate between the candidates rather than moderator-driven interviews.

The public can monitor whether the media organizations and their moderators follow this advice by critically viewing the debates on September 26, October 4 (Vice Presidential Candidates), October 9, and October 19.

Opportunities for CNN and Candidates in the First Democratic Party Debate

Five candidates are preparing for the CNN debate to be held in Las Vegas on 13 October 2015: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but also Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. There are two likely outcomes.

The first is an opportunity to actually debate the issues. The previous Fox and CNN debates failed to engage the candidates in a genuine debate of the issues, perhaps as a consequence of the sheer number of candidates on stage. On Tuesday, with five candidates, there will be no excuse for not asking the candidates to debate key issues, yet that remains to be seen. [Tracy Westen and I have been writing about this shortcoming of the GOP debates.]

Secondly, I expect that this is a key opportunity for the lesser known candidates to gain greater visibility. Martin O’Malley, for example, could gain support for his candidacy by virtue of just being heard. Even though there are fewer candidates in the Democratic Party Primary, it is amazing how focused the media have been on the two frontrunners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Even Joe Biden, yet to decide on his candidacy, has received tremendous coverage. The other three candidates have received very little indeed. For example, the Sunday NYT (11 October 2015) prepares readers for the coming debate by discussing the debating skills of Bernie and Hillary, but not one column inch on O’Malley, Webb, or Chafee. This is one more illustration of the limitations of the mass media in elections. More use needs to be made of the Internet, Web and social media to cover a wider range of issues and candidates.

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It might well be that the three lesser knowns will have the most to win in this CNN debate, as this stage will give them the best opportunity to-date to make their case as credible alternatives to the two front-runners. My prediction is that Martin O’Malley will be the biggest winner of Tuesday’s CNN debate, but the most important outcome should be the airing of candidate positions on key issues. This is the responsibility of the moderators at CNN.

#CNNDebate Needs to Focus Candidates on the Issues, Not Each Other

Debate Platform at Regan Library
Debate Platform at Regan Library

Bad news heading into the #CNNDebate. CNN is strategising on ways to get the candidates ‘interacting’ with each other – which is what a debate should indeed entail (unlike the first Fox News-Facebook disaster). However, trying to generate arguments among the candidates, which seems to be the strategy, is different from getting the candidates to focus on issues. Donald Trump claims to be talented in the art of negotiation, so he must know that a successful negotiating strategy is not focused on who is right and who is wrong, but on the issue at hand – how to solve a problem, for example. Let’s hope the moderators can steer this to a debate over the issues and not over each others’ looks, energy, tone, or style.

See the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/16/us/politics/cnn-hopes-to-capture-candidates-combative-spirit-in-gop-debate.html

An Open Appeal to #CNNDebate Moderators – Focus on the Issues

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I have been critical of the first GOP debate organized by Fox News and Facebook, despite its record-breaking audience. I’ve also written a number of posts about how the broadcast failed to focus on the issues. Given the excitement building around the CNN Debate on 16 September, let me make a simple appeal to the moderators, with apologies if this seems presumptuous:

First, avoid silly raise your hands questions. Ask simple open-ended questions about the issues. Let candidates explain their positions on some of the compelling issues of this election, such as around immigration and the Iran deal. I realize you cannot let every candidate comment on every issue, but if at least two comment, and one or more respond, you should begin to develop more voter awareness of positions on the key issues.

Secondly, avoid becoming the center of attention – that role should be left to the candidates. So rather than try to impress the audience or your peers with clever questions, try to enable the candidates to focus on the issues.

Much has been made about the degree style and personality were the key takeaways from the last debate, but that was in large part a consequence of the ways in which the debate was handled. By focusing on the issues, the style and personalities of the candidates will inevitably come through, but they will not be the only value of the debate.

 

Stop the Televised Debates and Shift to the Internet

The Republican debates are about to occur on television in ways that will provide an unfair advantage to the chosen ten, and undermine the campaign of at least six other candidates. Exposure of lesser known candidates on televised debates can make a significant difference.* Since there are viable alternatives to television determining the fate of the Republican primaries, they should be considered.

The Internet has no news hole. There is no limit of the number of candidates who could respond simultaneously, and on video, to the same questions. You could even include the Democratic Party candidates – why not? Ask all contenders the same questions. Simultaneously live stream their responses, and let the press and the votes pick and choose which candidates to view, and how to compare and contrast their responses. As they will be saved, some voters could look at all responses to the question of most interest to them, or look at all the responses of the candidates they want to know more about.

This idea was one aspect of The Democracy Network, developed by Tracy Westen, when he was President of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, and of The Democracy Network, during the early years of the Web.** His basic idea was that the issue positions of all candidates for all issues can be available on the Web, while television and the newspapers can only cover a selected set of candidates and issues, since they are limited by time and column inches, respectively.

This is clearly an opportunity to use the Interent to more fairly represent all the candidates in the primaries. Closer to the election, as the list grows shorter, a live televised debate could then be considered and be done in a fair way that does not put the media in the role of kingmaker.

* For example, see this study of Britain’s televised leadership debates: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1778442

** See: http://www.ifp.illinois.edu/nabhcs/abstracts/westen.html