With candidates across the country in full campaign mode, this is the part of election seasons where adversaries meet in debates. Last week there were a number of congressional and gubernatorial debates around the country and this week will see at least 16 debates in 15 states. At the end of this year, I doubt that we will look back and categorize any of these debates as “great.” Now days, debates are just joint, extended campaign rallies/commercials. Each candidate delivers the same sound bites and one-liners that they’ve been dispensing throughout their campaigns only now they do it face-to-face. There is the occasional substantive exchange or genuine argument, but by and large debates are just a campaign formality of little importance.
It wasn’t always this way. Before we entered the information age—a time marked by 24-hour news, the internet, smart phones, Facebook and Twitter—debates were important. It was a time when vast numbers of citizens could see the candidates for the first time, watch their mannerisms and interactions, and learn what they were all about. Back then, Americans weren’t inundated with information about candidates that “didn’t matter” for them, those outside of their states. The focus was on your congressman or senator, your governor and the presidential candidates. It was a time when there was greater potential for great debates. Even still, only two series of political debates spring to mind as “great.”
The first were the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a series of seven 3-hour debates that were spread over two months, between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for one of Illinois’ Senate seat. The men debated in 7 of Illinois’ 9 congressional districts in an effort to gain support for their parties’ candidates for the Illinois State Legislature (this was before the 17th Amendment, so the senator would be elected by the state legislature, so the more members of one’s party, the better chance he had to become a US senator). The debates drew many citizens from neighboring states and were extensively covered across the country because the main issue was one of national importance, slavery and its expansion.
The second series of great debates took place nearly one century later, in 1960 when Sen. John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon faced off in four presidential debates. The debates were substantive and they allowed Kennedy to project himself as a credible national leader. But the debates were consequential for another reason: it was the first time that presidential candidates debated on the relatively new medium of television. It was a paradigm change; for the first time, a larger percentage of voters could see the candidates square off and literally size them up—style now mattered.
Now, fifty years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, style often matters more that substance. It would be nice if we could get back to a time when candidates didn’t spend more time debating the debate rules than they did debating the issues, if we could avoid the 2-minute answer with a 1-minute rebuttal and a 30-second follow up. I think Americans would find it beneficial if they took enough time to pay attention. Maybe some candidates in the near future will agree to have a real debate, one in which they give real answers about real issues and fairly divide their time without a volume of stiff rules. I think our country would be better for it. What do you think? Join the Discourse!