Philosophical Paradoxes and the Republican Debates

Here’s how Aristotle described Zeno’s paradox of the arrow: “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.” That probably doesn’t translate very well from the Ancient Greek, and my Ancient Greek is too rusty to improve upon it. Let’s just say that there can be no “points” in time because if time stopped then motion would be impossible.

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What is also impossible is to fit every Republican who has expressed a strong interest in running for president on a single stage so that they can all debate each other simultaneously. I hope you can see the connection here. It’s a bit of a koan thing.

Time, space, the physics of perspective, and the limits of people’s attention and patience all combine to create a problem for Fox News and CNN when they try to figure out how to accommodate so many candidates in a debate without unfairly influencing the election by promoting some figures and excluding others. There can be no right answer, probably because people aren’t asking the right questions. After all, we know that the arrow does fly.

The two networks have come up with two distinct ways of approximating a solution to this paradox, or conundrum or Catch-22, or whatever you want to call it. Fox has typically come up with the worse solution of the two, which is to accept only the top ten candidates in early, largely meaningless polling. Conscious of the fact that this will probably exclude several candidates who ought to be treated with more seriousness (e.g., perhaps Gov. John Kasich of Ohio) while rewarding some lunatics who have name recognition precisely because they are lunatics (I’m thinking of Ben Carson and Donald Trump here), Fox will provide airtime during the day for candidates who have been excluded from the debate to appear or phone in to the network.

CNN, on the other hand, will simply air two debates, one after the other. The first debate will be for the second tier of candidates and the second debate will be for the first tier of candidates. Presumably, there will be much greater interest in the second debate, although it is quite possible that the debate for also-rans will actually be much more entertaining and ultimately newsworthy.

This will introduce something British into American politics, which is the concept of relegation. In most football/soccer organizations, there are tiers of leagues, somewhat like what we have in minor league baseball. The difference is that the worst two or three teams in a division will be dropped (relegated) into a lower division at the end of the season, and the top two or three teams from the lower divisions will advance (be promoted) to a higher one. This makes otherwise uninteresting games between terrible teams near the end of a season quite suspenseful, as getting kicked out of the English Premier League comes at a terrible cost for the organization and the fans.

To put this in CNN debate terms, we’ll all be asking if Donald Trump can do well enough in the first debate to avoid being demoted to the kiddie table for the second one. Meanwhile, we’ll be wondering who in the also-ran debate will shine and get an invitation to debate Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul the next time.

This may be unfamiliar to most Americans who don’t follow global soccer, but they may find the “game” even more exciting for just this reason.

Despite increased interest and excitement, CNN’s format will only add to the sense that forces other than voters’ preferences are what determine who gets to be our nominees for president. Candidates will have more incentive than ever to chase early poll numbers by whatever attention-getting foolishness they can think up. Billionaires who can pump up the advertising budget of their pet candidate will have immense influence.

People will recoil from this process even as they enjoy the spectacle as spectators.

There may be better solutions than the ones Fox and CNN have come up with, but the problem of having too many candidates is not one that can be solved by the people who host debates. I do know this though. If you drop a sack of grain on the floor, it will make a loud sound, but it you drop one piece of grain on the floor, you will not hear anything. Therefore, if you want people to talk about your debate, you should invite as many candidates as possible.

CNN has arrived at the better business decision.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.