Evan McMullin, running as an independent, debated Mike Lee, the incumbent Republican senator, on Monday. Former KSL radio host Doug Wright moderated the debate. McMullin and Lee face off in the one of the most watched and most competitive senate elections in the nation.
Wright opened up Monday’s debate by asking about one specific thing that each of them would bring to Utah. After asking the first question, Wright repeated the question again, due to the evasive answers he received.
This prodding to directly answer the question likely won’t surprise U.S. audiences everywhere: Evasive answers seem to be a trait idiosyncratic to politicians.
Do politicians evade questions?
This isn’t particular to Lee or McMullin –– politicians often do not give clear answers to questions. This phenomenon is so clearly defined that it’s made its way into the Cambridge Dictionary. There, they help differentiate between politics, political, politician and policy, by saying, “Politicians rarely give straight answers to questions from journalists.”
The Guardian wrote about this trend of giving elusive answers, suggesting that the art of avoiding answering questions is both the hallmark of politicians and trickier to accomplish than one might think.
Zoe Williams in The Guardian wrote, “They’re not even anything like a deliberate, non-white lie, in which there is at least the challenge of darting away from the matter. It’s like being in a conversation based on a deliberate premise of meaninglessness.”
Peter Bull has studied this phenomenon for many years. Bull said in The Conversation that politicians’ tendency to equivocate is more about conflict-avoidance, rather than deceiving, saying, “That’s not necessarily because they are devious, slippery or evasive, but because conflict is endemic to politics, and politicians get asked a lot of questions that cause communicative conflicts.”
Columbia University identifies three strategies that politicians use to dodge questions in an analysis that include:
- Not answering.
- Asking a different question.
- Answering a similar question.
The analysis quoted Robert MacNamara who said, “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.”
It’s possible that politicians’ evasive answers contribute to what Pew Research has found as historic lows in Americans’ trust of government.
Like Williams wrote in The Guardian, discourse is inherently valuable, but meaning makes discourse more valuable.