The problem with debates

Opinion by Terence Zhao
May 24, 2017, 12:51 a.m.

The Stanford Political Union is a new student group that has been making waves on campus. It distinguishes itself from many other political organizations on campus by hosting debates between two speakers. As the group claims in its slogan, “the best way to learn is to debate those who disagree.”

It’s a noble goal to have, and I genuinely admire the SPU’s efforts. However, their first production, a debate about whether or not to repeal the Affordable Care Act, leaves much to be desired.

There is a misconception that in a bipartisan debate such as this, as long as the two sides are treated equally by the moderator, there can be no bias on the part of the organizer. However, this is decidedly not the case; the most influential bias occurs even before the actual debate commences. Before any speaker is able to take the stage, the organizers of the debate have tremendous leeway with regards to who to invite, what questions to ask and how the event should be framed. And by determining these, the organizer will have also determined – far in advance of the actual debate itself – what ideas are legitimized, and what ideas are not.

So, when the SPU puts on a debate entitled “Should We Repeal Obamacare?”, the repeal of Obamacare is thus given legitimacy, as well as half the stage.

But does that position really deserve half the stage? Does it really deserve any part of the stage?

At the time of this event, only 17 percent of Americans support the latest version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the GOP replacement for Obamacare. While 17 percent doesn’t seem low, it is actually excruciatingly so in the context of polling numbers. For your reference, 29 percent of Americans surveyed back in 2015 supported replacing the Obama administration with a military junta. And, of course, anyone who seriously suggests a military coup – especially in the latter days of the Obama administration, where everything was going fairly smoothly – would be laughed out of any serious political conversation.

And yet, repealing Obamacare, a position that is even more on the fringe and almost twice as unpopular as, again, overthrowing the democratically elected U.S. government via a military coup, is somehow to be respected as a legitimate position that we should hear out, even though an overwhelming majority of Americans, including most Republicans, reject it.

Now, that is not to say that all unpopular opinions ought to be rejected outright. For example, when the U.S. first invaded Iraq, the percentage of Americans who did not support the war was also abysmally low, but that opinion was nonetheless important. However, if that was the goal of SPU – to showcase a marginalized viewpoint – they must also be able to recognize the bias inherent in that decision. Of course, I am by no means attacking the good people at the SPU or calling them biased propagandists. They likely came from very good intentions and didn’t want to silence conservative voices at a campus generally characterized as a “liberal bubble.” But, for once, it looks like the liberal bubble is (shockingly) not to blame, because the Obamacare repeal is just as unpopular outside the bubble, too. And, whether intentional or not, the very inclusion of this position in the debate is a form of bias, because it lends mainstream credibility to a fringe idea. In other words, the debate was not impartial, because in practice, it has effectively promoted the Obamacare repeal position.

But, more importantly, the debate was not impartial because it confuses impartiality with bipartisanship. By virtue of how it is framed, this debate essentially saw a battle between the Democratic (keep Obamacare) and Republican (repeal Obamacare) party lines. And it reflects a larger tendency in political circles to simply take the mainstream Republican and Democratic positions as the two opposite sides to an issue, even if one or both of those positions might not be tenable or remotely popular. In the case of healthcare, then, the issue becomes framed in an unhelpful binary: Should we repeal Obamacare? And, in doing so, the SPU has effectively excluded policy solutions that are not part of this binary, but are far more popular. For example, to the left of the pro-Obamacare position is the single-payer model, or Medicare for all. This is currently in the works for the state of California and has consistently been favored by a majority of Americans and, I am confident to assume, a far larger chunk of the student population than those who support an Obamacare repeal.

And, in the context of Stanford, this is illustrative of the risks of of consistently trying to frame the campus political climate as being divided between a dominant homogenous group of “liberals” and a beleaguered minority of “conservatives”. According to a poll from The Daily, 85 percent of undergraduates voted for Hillary Clinton. It would be ludicrous, though, to suggest that the vast majority of Stanford undergrads think alike – precisely the opposite. Take single-payer, for example: There is a huge level of disagreement between students here – all of whom identify as left-leaning – whether it is a good idea, and a debate between these two factions would certainly also be productive and, frankly, be more relevant to more students on campus.

Or, thinking a little further out of the box, perhaps there wouldn’t just be a binary – maybe it would be a three-sided dialogue, between supporters of single payer, the status quo, and the repeal.

But that was not the debate we had. Instead, we were presented with a restrictive, binary question that has been asked to death in Washington: Should Obamacare be repealed? Of course, it was better than having no debate at all. But, surely, we can progress to a more sophisticated question.



Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’


Terence Zhao '19 originally hails from Beijing, China, before immigrating to the US and settling in Arcadia, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. He is majoring in Urban Studies, and promotes the major with cult-like zeal. In his spare time, he likes to explore cities and make pointless maps.

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