Intelligence Squared: Has the political establishment failed America?

I went to a debate on February 23, hosted by the UChicago Institute for Politics and Inteligence Squared.  IQ2 hosts “Oxford-style debates”; there are two teams of two people.  Each speaker makes a 15 minute opening statement, followed by a round of questions from the audience, and then 5 minute closing statements from each speaker.

The topic on hand was “Has the political establishment failed America?” It’s a wishy-washy topic, and hard to get a handle on – who counts as “political establishment,” what does “failed” mean, and even what does “America” mean (citizens, or the idea of America). I find it hard to grapple with questions like this. On one hand, there is a sense in which any question precisely worded would have a straight-forward answer, or at least it would have a series of studies that argue for opposing views.  In this case, a debate would be either pointless or dull.  But if you go too far in blurriness of a question, then each side can choose an interpretation that best suits their case, and thus talk past each other.  There was a lot of “Just because the political establishment has not always failed America, or just because the political establishment doesn’t fail America in every way, does not mean that the political establishment has not failed America” on one side, and on the other, claims that “‘Political establishment’ is such a meaningless phrase, and is up for so much interpretation, that the only response to this is to vote no.” And so the debate, which should be a coming together of opinions and ideas to create a consensus, devolves into a battle of who can persuade the most people that their definition is the best. Both sides talk past each other.

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The Pro team: Michael Eric Dyson (Georgetown University) and William Howell (UChicago).

Michael Eric Dyson, of the Georgetown Sociology department, was a fiery speaker and incredible orator.  His words were rhythmic and alliterative, emotionally powerful and compelling.  When I took a moment to step back and think about what he was saying, I realized that he wasn’t really addressing the question at hand – he was talking about Trump and the Republican party in general.  Though they are the current political establishment, you can’t address their failings and not address the system that brought them to power. Just because he was such a good speaker, here is a video of him talking about racism and Trump.

The other member of the Pro team, William Howell, is a member of the UChicago Harris School in Public Policy. He was my favorite of the debaters, because he stayed on the question the entire time.  He also didn’t attempt to evade the question by arguing that we shouldn’t be answering it all – he accepted the premise of the debate and tried to live within those confines.  Unfortunately, he did seem a bit arrogant.  He was also pushing for broad institutional reform – he even implied changing our entire form of government – which was a bit more extreme than I am ready to support.

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The Con team: Jennifer Rubin (The Washington Post) and Eric Oliver (UChicago).

Eric Oliver gave the opening statement for the Con team.  Admittedly, following Mr Dyson is a big task.  However, his attempt to equate anyone who supports the motion with Donald Trump and his supporters was logically flawed in the extreme.  Indeed, while the Pro teams most pervasive problem was trying to turn the debate into a referendum on Trump and his policies, the Con team’s was over-inflating the facts and an inability to wrestle with inconsistencies.  Yes, Donald Trump ran on subverting the establishment.  That does not mean that President Donald Trump is not now a part of that establishment.

The other half of the team, Jennifer Rubin, is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post. I found her to be a poor speaker and prone to logical fallacies, but I worry that I only think that because she is (1) female, and (2) conservative.  I so fundamentally disagreed with much of what she said that I’m not sure I can be an objective judge of her abilities.

Intelligence Squared debates are won by convincing more people to join your side.  They poll the audience at the beginning and end of the debate, and compare the scores. I began as an “Undecided” voter, and ended supported the Pro team.  But much of that support came not so much from agreeing with their arguments, but disagreeing with the Con side’s approach.  Both teams made valid points throughout; the political system is failing America in terms of discrimination of all sorts, environmental planning, and protections from big companies.  But on the other hand, American quality of life goes up and down periodically, and it would be wrong to place that at the foot of the political establishment.  Especially since it is the establishment that has stepped in to stop so many of the most egregious outrages – the courts stopping Trump’s travel ban, the federal government (evnetually) stepping in for Flint, MI.

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So, who won?

The final result was that 4% of respondents switched from Pro to Undecided, and the rest stayed the same.  So Con technically won, I suppose?

I got to ask a question at the end of the debate. I asked to what extent each team’s argument was historical – did the Pro team think there was ever a time when the political establishment was not failing America? Did the Con side think the political establishment had ever failed America? And if yes, when did it change?  Unfortunately, neither side really answered my question; in fact, both sides seemed to argue the opposition’s point! Afterwards, at a reception hosted by the IoP, one of the speakers noticed me and told me that I had asked an excellent question.  Very flattering – but next time, please answer it!

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