October 29, 2015

Suggestions for Presidential Debates

I’ve been watching the latest Republican presidential debates. I didn’t watch the debates live because I wanted to see the PBS Nature program on pets, followed by the remainder of the second World Series game. From this experience, I have a few suggestions for future debates, which I  list below. Note that this is not a complete specification for future debates.

1. Make the debates more widely available. Debates should be presented on broadcast networks, so people without cable can see them. The debates should be streamed live on the Web and should be available for later viewing on the Web and on demand from cable systems. They should also be broadcast on radio. Perhaps some voters will still not be able to see (or hear) the debates, but most people will.

2. Remove the live audience. We should be interested in what the candidates have to say, uninfluenced by audience reaction. If there has to be an audience, admonish its members to be silent during the proceedings. If people really want an audience that is allowed to react, assemble a Republican audience for Democratic debates and a Democratic Audience for Republican debates. That should be interesting.

3. Ask all candidates the same questions. Although it may be interesting to be able to contrast candidate A’s position with that of candidate B, it is more helpful to know what all the candidates have to say, especially regarding policy matters. It is also helpful to know if a given candidate has no opinion or only a half-baked opinion on a given subject.

4. Enforce time limits. The time limits for candidate responses to questions are never aggressively enforced. This is particularly irritating when a candidate goes on and on without answering the question asked. (See below.) If the rules of the debate allow for one-minute answers, for example, a candidate’s microphone should be cut off by a studio technician after 60 seconds. Presidents, after all, have to be able to use their time wisely, as they get no more of it than the rest of us.

5. Allow candidates to think about what they are about to say. I suggest that, after a candidate is asked a question, the candidate’s microphone not be turned on for 10 seconds. This allows for collecting one’s thoughts and preparing to answer the question that was actually asked. Of course, each candidate should have suitable time information displayed on the podium.

6. Reward succinctness. If candidates are given, say, a minute to answer, give them credit for time not used. If a candidate answers a question in 50 seconds, let him or her answer another question in 70 seconds.

7. Reward responsiveness. Candidates should not be allowed to avoid answering a question by talking about something else entirely. Nor should the American people have to put up with such a diversionary tactic. If, in 15 seconds, a candidate has not begun addressing the question posed, the microphone should be cut off and the allotted time for the answer forfeited.

8. Stick to policy and procedural questions. Voters want to know about issues such as what the candidate thinks the U.S. to do in the Middle East or the criteria the candidate would use in selecting a Supreme Court nominee. Matters particular to one candidate—haven’t you been inconsistent about one thing or another, for example—are best handled in other fora.

9. Don’t allow rebuttal. Allowing a candidate rebuttal time whenever his or her name is mentioned interrupts the flow of the debate. Rebuttals can be made later in interviews, speeches, or press releases.

10. Encourage truth-telling. This is a difficult suggestion to implement, but it is well worth looking for a mechanism to do so. Political candidates are notorious for shading the truth, and many assertions of candidates are debatable. On the other hand, candidates are not above trying to get away with outright lies. (Carly Fiorina’s story of the nonexistent Planned Parenthood video that she swears she saw is a good example of this.) Debates should employ neutral fact-checkers. Admittedly, fact-checking is difficult to do and to display—particularly on radio—on the fly. Perhaps a good mechanism would be a follow-up program on the same network a night or two later. Video of clearly false statements could be shown along with discussion of the truth by experts. Here is a place where rebuttal may be appropriate. Objectivity is both important here and difficult to achieve, but voters need to know when a candidate is espousing an outright lie.

October 9, 2015

Why I Don’t Think Much Will Come of the Roman Catholic Family Synod

A three-week synod has convened in the Vatican to reconsider how the Roman Catholic Church deals with family issues. The official theme of the conference is “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World.”

The gathering is populated primarily by ordained celibate males. A few heterosexual couples are participating but who cannot vote, a status shared by a few singles, most of whom are women, some of them women religious (who, of course, are also celibate). In other words, virtually all the participants have never lived the sort of life experienced by most of the world’s adult population.

Both the composition of the synod and the inclinations exhibited by Pope Francis suggest that, at the end of three weeks, the Roman Catholic Church will be as judgmental as ever, but will downplay its condemnation. Gays will still be disordered, women will still be the oppressed minority in a church in which the represent the majority of its adherents, and, prevented from using birth control, women will be condemned for aborting unwanted offspring.

But there is another reason that nothing substantial will come of the family synod. Like meetings of Anglican primates, the worthies gathered to discuss family issues represent both Western industrialized nations and nations of the Third World. The Roman Catholic Church, like Anglican churches, is growing fastest in the developing world. As in the Anglican Communion, the greatest repository of conservative sentiment within the Roman Catholic Church is in developing countries. Even if, say, Western participants thought that the condemnation of homosexuality should be done away with, such innovation would be thoroughly unacceptable to conservative non-Western participants. Largely because of this dynamic, the best that can be hoped for from the synod is greater pastoral sensitivity devoid of any doctrinal movement.

The futility of gatherings like the current one exposes the great weakness of a worldwide church or communion in which uniformity is considered indispensable. Over two millennia, Christianity has continued to evolve to remain relevant to changing social contexts. There is no reason to believe that process is at an end, despite self-righteous prattle about “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Moreover, it is perfectly clear that Western and Third World countries represent societies at very different stages of development. To suggest that they are served by identical churches is patently absurd. God may be unchanging, but God’s people are not. A church that serves the needs of a congregation in suburban California will not likely be equally effective in rural Nigeria.

The Roman Catholic Church has backed itself into a corner from which no one can escape until everyone does so. The Anglican Communion has not done this, although some would like it to adopt the same stance as the Roman Church. May God keep our Communion from making that mistake.