Reflections on Debating The Right

It can and should be done. But we’ve got to win.

Before this week, in 10 years as a writer I had never done a big public debate. This is not because I avoid debates but because nobody has thought me interesting enough to take part in one. That suits me quite well, since debates make me very nervous. As everyone knows, you do not win a debate by having the best argument, but by being the best debater. Style matters just as much as substance, and in person I tend to be disorganized, uncertain, and easily flustered. I prefer writing to speech: When you write, you actually get to think about what you’re going to say before you say it. When you have to improvise an instantaneous response to someone, you’re stuck with whatever first happens to come out of your mouth. There is no editing process. If you say something stupid, if you flounder or struggle to come up with words, your opponent will thrash you, you will lose, and the whole thing will end up on YouTube as “Socialist DESTROYED when confronted with FACTS.”

It’s a risky endeavor, so I wasn’t thrilled when students at Pomona College asked me if I wanted to come to California and debate “capitalism vs. socialism.” I think I am a capable defender of left ideas, but I am not always quick-witted, and I like to be able to revise drafts of my thoughts many times before having them subjected to public scrutiny. Nevertheless I agreed, for fear of appearing a coward who hides behind his keyboard. My opponent was Daniel J. Mitchell, a libertarian economist lately of the Cato Institute.

I think the debate went well, you can watch the whole thing in three parts here: I, II, III. I was quite nervous going into it, since as I say I am very inexperienced. But as things got going, I realized that it was actually very easy to defend the socialist position. I did not envy Dr. Mitchell for having to speak up for capitalism, since capitalism is indefensible.

I respect Dr. Mitchell for two reasons: First, he was extremely polite and “played fair.” Neither one of us interrupted the other and it did not descend into awkward personal sniping. We both stuck to the ideas. Second, Dr. Mitchell was extremely honest about the implications of his position. He admitted that he was opposed to democracy, that he thought offshore tax havens were good, that he believed workers shouldn’t have any rights beyond their contracts, and that he had no idea how capitalism could possibly avert the climate change crisis. The right often tries to avoid discussing these implications of its philosophy. Dr. Mitchell was quite blunt in saying that democracy is bad and tax avoidance is good. I am grateful to him because, while I find these positions morally objectionable in the extreme, it is helpful when I can point to someone’s actual words rather than having to accuse them of burying their true feelings beneath euphemisms. 

The debate we had was very illuminating on the contrasts between the capitalist philosophy and the socialist one. I explained how the premises of laissez-faire, that “voluntary contracts” between people would ensure maximal freedom, were false: In fact, power tends to concentrate in the hands of a few extremely wealthy elites, and because wealth is power, those who have very little wealth have very little power. We are subjected to the “private government” of corporations; while elected officials can be voted out, a company like Facebook can do as it pleases because it has cornered a market, and users have very little say in what happens. The debate was partly about “big tech” and I showed the contrast between the “participatory” governance of Wikipedia and the top-down governance of the large for-profit companies, explaining why socialists thought it so important that ordinary people be allowed to take part in decisions that affect their lives.

The debate confirmed a belief I have held for sometime, one I used to hold on faith but now think is quite justified: I think we on the left can and should debate people on the right, publicly, whenever and wherever we can. (And by “we” I mean “people who are better at debate than me.”) There is a very strong prevailing sentiment among leftists that debate is futile, that you do not beat the right politically by besting them in an argument. I have always thought that this misunderstands what a public debate is for: It is not so that you can convince the other person they are wrong, and it is not so you can meticulously list a slew of logical fallacies they have committed. It is a theatrical spectacle, and if you master it, it helps draw people to your cause.

I tend to think that people on the left are skeptical of the powers of debate because they’ve only ever seen the left lose debates. Or rather, they’ve seen two kinds of debates: those the left loses outright, and those the left “wins” while still losing. In the latter category I would place Hillary Clinton’s debates with Donald Trump: Clinton, the skilled debater, would have “won” the debate before a panel of judges who graded rigor of argumentation, preparedness, etc. But the debates ultimately helped Trump. One quite reasonable conclusion from this is that there is no benefit to debating the right: They will win no matter what, so you should not give them a platform. Instead, ignore them, and focus on gathering your own forces.

I’ve seen this expressed countless times. Here’s a recent example from Guardian writer Zoe Williams, who says that “fascists” are like “vampires” and you should not try to engage them in arguments:

Marie Curie would not win a debate with Steve Bannon about whether she should carry on doing science or go back to the kitchen; Sigmund Freud would not win an argument against Nigel Farage over whether the psychoanalyst was exerting undue influence because HE WAS A JEW. Authoritarians delight in the weakness of their case; if they can be that wrong, and still prevail, they get to prove how strong they are and besmirch the principles of truth and respect at the same time, so it’s win-win. What we used to do really well was rules. Fascists are like vampires – the important thing is not to invite them into your house, or on to your radio talkshow… First, it is not enjoyable to have them in your house, and second, if it gets to hand-to-hand combat with a vampire, they’re much better at it than you.

Even if we stick to the vampire metaphor we can see why there’s a problem here. If vampires are breeding in your village, “not inviting them into your house” is not going to eliminate the scourge of vampirism. Instead, you simply put off your inevitable demise. Williams, like many liberals, does not seem to actually have a plan for how to fight vampires, and almost seems resigned to failure. In any direct engagement, we would lose, since “they’re much better at it.” But wait: There is only one way you kill a vampire, and it does involve inviting them into your house. You just have to be ready waiting behind the door with a very large stake.

I do not understand why there is an assumption that you cannot beat a right-winger in a debate. Of course, you can’t if you’re not any good at debating people. But a well-trained leftist who had actually done their homework, done practice rounds, knew the other side’s tactics, and came ready to rumble could use a debate as an opportunity to publicly humiliate the right, charming the public through superior wit, intelligence, and affability. Ben Shapiro is very skilled at using public engagements with leftists to bolster his own image as an intellectual brawler who can “destroy” the weak arguments and pitiful feelings-based politics of the loony left. He is able to do this, however, only because people on the left do not know how to counter it. In fact, he uses quite cheap tactics (he has even compiled them into a booklet) and someone who wasn’t caught off guard could make him look quite silly.

I suspect that he and other right-wingers rather know this. Shapiro himself avoids having discussions with any leftists who could possibly embarrass him. On his interview program, his guests are almost uniformly conservative “intellectual dark web” types, without a single serious challenger. He has promised repeatedly to actually have a guest from the left, but has yet to follow through. Sam Harris is the same. My colleague Aisling McCrea has documented the way “classical liberal” Dave Rubin limits his “debate” show to guests that won’t seriously question conservative orthodoxy. Jordan Peterson keeps ducking a debate with an actual Marxist on Peterson’s theory of “postmodern neo-Marxism.” I have pointed out over and over again, including over the course of an entire book, that these supposed debate-lovers actively avoid debate. When Current Affairs has obliterated their ideas at length, they have avoided us completely. Students at the University of Michigan tried to get Shapiro, Charlie Kirk, and Bari Weiss to agree to debate myself, Briahna Joy Gray, and the Baffler’s Maximillian Alvarez. They couldn’t get a response out of any of them. 

Debate would actually benefit the left, if we made sure we could win. Many of these people’s criticisms of leftists are ridiculous caricatures, and in order to convince their followers that these caricatures are accurate, they have to make sure never to have their audience see an actual leftist. If one of us showed up, and we were articulate, reasonable, likable, and compassionate, the whole shtick about crazy irrational social justice warriors would be a little harder to sell.

Note here that I am not saying that you simply need to “out-logic” the right. Many of the tactics you use to win the audience have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the argument itself. As Natalie “ContraPoints” Wynn has pointed out, much of politics is “aesthetic”: It’s about seeming like you’re a winner rather than a loser. Trump’s mastery of the aesthetics of politics is one thing that helped make him president despite his being a deeply ignorant man. We lefties need to show up ready to rake the right over the coals, to shame them for their callousness and their total lack of solutions to basic human problems. This is what Bernie Sanders did in his debate with Ted Cruz, and it worked.

Bear in mind: Public argument is not an actual substitute for political organizing. It is a very limited tool. But it is a tool, and it’s one lefties need to get better at using. The right has a formidable propaganda apparatus. They are good at what they do. They dominate YouTube, they blast their message out on FOX. It is necessary to counter them not just with better arguments, but with better presentation and better (ugh) “branding.”

I went into my Capitalism vs. Socialism debate extremely worried. If I lost, I would embarrass those who share my ideals. I would have given the right a “platform” and it would only have served to undermine my own cause. But I did not lose. I spent days preparing. I came with 30 pages of notes. I read dozens of my opponent’s previous writings. I had plans for how to counter every major talking point. I knew what I wanted to get across, and I came up with a dozen different ways to present it.

I had major weak spots. I was particularly disappointed with my answer to a question about the historical links between capitalism and slavery, which took me by surprise. I conceded far too much to the “neoclassical” economic framework, and failed to substantively challenge the idea that inequality and laissez-faire capitalism are necessary for economic growth. (Part of this was intentional, though; I decided to focus on the points I thought my opponent would have the least well thought-out answers on.) Overall I still underprepared, and in future debates I would make sure to be much better and reduce the risk of being caught out by any unexpected lines of discussion. However, on the whole I think I came across confident and trustworthy, and I do not think anyone could have left the auditorium thinking that socialists are complete delusional idiots. 

Yes, it’s true, there are plenty of people on the right who are not nearly as fair or honest as Dr. Mitchell: They will not hesitate to fight dirty, to interrupt, to “gish gallop,” to lie about their true beliefs, to deploy “gotchas.” These people will be harder to show up. But it can be done. And if it is done, it will make for some formidable PR for the left. I do not encourage anyone to agree to a debate they cannot win, and we must be very cautious not to walk into traps. But I do not accept that the “vampires” are necessarily always going to be better fighters. We will always lose in a street brawl; the militarists will be better at violence. But the intellectual terrain should be ours. If we are losing, then we haven’t trained hard enough. We haven’t studied their methods and learned to counter them. If we’re to keep the Trumps and Bolsonaros of the world from taking us into the abyss, we must master the techniques of public persuasion.

Some excellent tips on how to debate the right are available from University of Wisconsin doctoral candidate and debate director CV Vitolo-Haddad, who has successfully engaged in public clashes with the right. 

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