Why Debates (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Refusal to Partake) Matter

Nassim Taleb

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez refused Ben Shapiro’s recent invitation to debate, she not only squandered $10,000 for her own campaign, but also a historical and imperative staple of American politics.

I was the captain of the debate team and a teacher of the debate class in high school. High school debate was incredibly competitive. Despite what some idealists may think, the goal was not to better understand the nuances of the issues and agree on a path forward— it was to win. Often, these debates could be more show than substance. Half the battle was managing appearance and currying favor with the judge. Nevertheless, I would leave every tournament, whether we won or lost spectacularly, with a stronger understanding of all sides of the issues discussed.

Debate has a long and proud history in America. During her early years, federalists like Alexander Hamilton would publish hundreds of persuasive essays for the public defending their agenda (e.g. the Constitution, the Treasury), while anti-federalists like Jefferson would respond in kind. Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglass went around the country before the election of 1860, debating the future of slavery and the Union, and founding a style of debate that is still used by high schoolers to this day. A century later, the advent of televised debates further upped the stakes– many argue that JFK’s cool demeanor in the election of 1960, in contrast to Nixon’s sweaty appearance, secured him the election. Ronald Reagan’s comfort on camera (after a long career in Hollywood) gave him a landslide victory.

But debates were not always productive. The hit Gore Vidal-William Buckley debates of the 1960s ended in disaster with Vidal calling Buckley a Nazi and Buckley threatening to assault Vidal in turn. The 2016 presidential debates were equally cringe-worthy, with Trump “guaranteeing there’s no problem” in regards to the size of his hands and penis. Many have used these examples to conclude that the art of debate is dead. Yet they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Even the most off-topic, circus-esque debates reveal crucial insights about their participants.

Critics argue that these debates are anachronistic because with the polarizing, 24-hour news-cycle, people are already stone-set in their opinions. There is truth to this. Those in Shapiro’s or Oscacio-Cortez’s respective bases are unlikely to reconsider based on a debate. But one must also remember that as many as about 45% of eligible Americans don’t vote in presidential elections at all. As in Trump’s case, engaging but a small proportion of them means political dominance and control of the future of our nation. Debates may not be conducive to convincing hard-set partisans, but they offer those undecided or indifferent the perfect opportunity to see what the candidates believe, and how they comport themselves.

When challenged by Shapiro, Ocasio-Cortez responded that she doesn’t respond to “men with bad intentions.” All the “cat-calling” nonsense aside, one is left to wonder about the provenance of her perception of “bad intentions.” What could be so bad about a debate challenge?

In her case, it’s simple. At the moment, the majority of Americans outside partisan circles have no strong opinions about her, a fact that she could capitalize upon to appeal to a broader swath. A highly publicized debate with a strong opponent would change all that. Her position is made all the more difficult by the fact that she was elected as a populist, democratic-socialist with no background in policy. As is common with populists and socialists (think Castro, Lenin, even Hitler– not that Ocasio-Cortez is Hitler, obviously), her political ascent was predicated on ambiguous, unattainable promises of “free” education, healthcare, wealth, etc. The empty words that have brought her thus far simply would not stand under the magnifying glass of reason and logic. Shapiro’s intentions may be “bad” for those who defend a murderous philosophy, but unequivocally “good” for the country.

Even if Ocasio-Cortez were the best debater in world (and I do not know enough to pass judgement on her rhetorical abilities), her position in a debate with Shapiro, defending socialism, would be onerous at best. An embarrassing gaff could mean losing her star power and skirting her chances at the high office she likely seeks. Therefore, Ocasio-Cortez and her allies have sought every excuse not to participate.

Chief among them have been various slanders of Shapiro’s character (this is a common progressive trope: when you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger). Indubitably, Ben Shapiro is controversial and provocative.  Many on the left have argued that his approach is not conducive to good-spirited debate. Yet they are the same folks who advocate punching Nazis because of the inhumanity they represent. Shouldn’t Shapiro then be validated in acting aggressively towards socialism, the philosophy behind Nazism and Communism, a philosophy which has killed ten times as many as Hitler himself? To put it in liberal-speak, if someone is running for office under such an “offensive” banner, don’t they at least have a responsibility to face the American people and explain their views while being asked the tough questions that are warranted? And is that not exactly what Ben Shapiro has proposed?

In high school, one parent or coach judge decided the fate of that day. In US politics, hundreds of millions are the judge, and the ramifications last for generations. Progressives often say “words matter.” But they have repeatedly refused the opportunity to utter the words that they think matter. It seems actions speak louder than words.

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Adam Barsouk

Adam Barsouk is a student of medicine and health policy at Jefferson Medical College and a cancer researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. His family’s escape from the Soviet Union, and his experiences in the lab and the clinic, have inspired him to restore liberty to healthcare and the other depraved sectors of American life.